BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Theo Pinson knew that he and his fellow starters would eventually get around to putting the ball in the basket Thursday.
But after more than seven minutes and 13 straight missed shots to start North Carolina’s second round ACC tournament game against Miami, coach Roy Williams wasn’t willing to wait any longer for them to do it.
So as he is wont to do, he sent five new players onto the floor to see if they could do any better.
The Tar Heels had already given up the game’s first 12 points by the time Seventh Woods, Andrew Platek, Brandon Robinson, Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley came off the bench. And they were down by 14 before Woods finally got his team on the scoreboard with an aggressive drive to the rim.
That first basket and the free throw that followed it finally lit a spark under the Tar Heels, who came all the way back to take the lead by halftime then pulled away for an 82-65 victory at Barclays Center that avenged a heartbreaking Senior Night loss to the Hurricanes just over a week ago.
With the win, UNC earns a rematch of another recent loss, this time against arch-rival Duke in Friday’s tournament semifinal.
“It was a weird game, but those five guys got in and the best play was Seventh taking the ball to the basket,” Williams said. “The first group in there missed shots and we were tight and missing everything, missing layups.
“I thought they were doing okay defensively and I just wanted to shake them a little bit and put those five guys in. They got it to 14-5 and sort of calmed the came down a little bit. I thought that was huge for us getting us back in the game.”
Woods’ pivotal basket was the first points he’s scored since the Michigan game back on Nov. 29. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Down 14-0 it can’t get really much worse, so we just went out there and played free-minded basketball,” Woods said. “I crossed over like we’re taught to do and saw their big man coming off his man, so I just attacked him.”
Woods’ three-point play was followed by a Manley dunk, and the momentum carried over to the starters once they returned. Once they got started, the sixth-seeded Tar Heels outscored No. 3 Miami 82-51, including a near-bookend 13-0 run to close out the game.
But it was anything but easy.
In addition to that unsightly seven-minute scoring drought to start the game and the two-touchdown headstart it spotted its opponent, UNC (24-9) still managed to win despite Luke Maye going 1 for 15 from the floor, fellow first team All-ACC selection Joel Berry missing six of his seven 3-pointers and two key players — Berry and Cameron Johnson — spending time in the locker room with injuries.
As bad as things got, Pinson said he never lost faith, in part because he and his teammates trailed Miami by 16 in their regular season meeting before rallying to tie the game in the final seconds.
“We’ve been here before, even with the same team,” Pinson said. “We were in the same situation last week.
“I’m just really proud of the guys that came off the bench. I told them in the locker room those five really won the game for us. I mean, they settled us down. They got us playing the way we needed to play.”
While it was the play of the “Blue team” that got the Tar Heels going, Pinson’s inspired play turned out to be their saving grace.
The senior guard scored a career-high 25 points, including two 3-pointers. He added 11 rebounds, three assists and three steals in a 35-minute virtuoso performance punctuated by a spectacular dunk that started the final 13-0 exclamation point.
“Last year we had guys who could score the ball and he was more of a facilitator,” said Berry, who bounced back from an ankle injury to score 11 points, despite his shooting woes.
“He can still facilitate, but he’s had to take on more of a scoring role this year. I know he hasn’t shot a high percentage from three, but when you’re a big-time player, sometimes you step up and make big-time shots. That’s what he did tonight.”
He wasn’t the only one.
Johnson, who missed some time in the second half after crashing hard to the floor on his hip, finished with 13 points. His three most important shots were the free throws he made at the end of the first half to put UNC ahead 32-31 after being fouled by Miami’s Lonnie Walker IV on a halfcourt heave.
It was a somewhat ironic or perhaps fitting play considering that nine days earlier, the Hurricanes (22-9) spoiled the Tar Heels’ Senior Night celebration with a game-winning halfcourt buzzer beater by Ja’Quan Newton.
Newton ended up leading Miami with 17 points in Thursday’s rematch.
“I wouldn’t say that’s quite karma, because it didn’t mean as much,” Johnson said. “But it was good to get those points.”
Though Thursday’s win won’t erase the sting of that Senior Night disappointment, it still meant a lot to Williams and his Tar Heels.
“For us it was a little more revenge and I even used the word redeem,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “I never used it last year until we got to (the Final Four in) Phoenix. I hadn’t even heard it, but I said let’s redeem ourselves by how we played defense tonight.”