Return of do-it-all Theo Pinson helps energize Tar Heels

While Pinsons highlight-reel dunk was perhaps the most important basket of the game, it was only the tip of the iceberg of the popular juniors impact on UNCs win against Florida State on Saturday

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Jan 14

CHAPEL HILL — Theo Pinson gained notoriety last spring not for varied contributions to the North Carolina basketball team, but for his cameo appearances crashing coach Roy Williams’ press conferences during the Tar Heels’ run to the national championship game. Saturday at the Smith Center, Pinson finally got a chance to be the center of attention with the media. And he soaked it all in for everything he was worth. The junior forward was the first player into the interview room after UNC’s 96-83 win against Florida State and one of the last to leave as he as he joyfully answered every question thrown his way. The star turn was a long time coming for Pinson, who missed the first 16 games of the season recovering from a broken right foot, then missed his first nine field goal attempts upon returning — a streak that ended with a spectacular tomahawk dunk that propelled UNC to its most important victory of the season to date. “I’m just glad I could come through for my teammates,” Pinson said. “It was real fun just seeing everybody in the locker room happy for me, knowing what I went through.” Pinson was slated to be the Tar Heels’ starting shooting guard before suffering his injury in the opening week of preseason practice. He did what he could to help during his rehab by keeping his teammates laughing, dancing on the bench before games — even while wearing a walking boot — and being the team’s most visible cheerleader. It’s a contribution that led forward Justin Jackson to refer to Pinson as “one of the guys you would always want on your team.” His popularity was personified by the standing ovation he received when he entered a game for the first time this season, on Jan. 8 against NC State. The roar was even louder Saturday following his swooping, one-handed dunk that had even his coach oohing and aahing. “I got my whole body by (defender Xavier Rathan-Mayes) and the paint opened up like the red Sea,” Pinson said of the play that broke the Seminoles’ spirit and sent the Smith Center into a frenzy. “I was like ‘take off, don’t lay it up … take off.” While that dunk was perhaps the most important basket of the game as part of a decisive 10-2 second half run that put the victory away for UNC, it was only the tip of the iceberg of Pinson’s impact. In a performance that epitomized why former teammate Marcus Paige once described Pinson as UNC’s Swiss Army Knife, the 6-foot-6 wing recorded 12 points, a career-high 10 rebounds, three assists and a steal in 24 minutes. His most important contribution may have been his defense, especially when called upon to play center against 7-foot-1, 304-pound Michael Ojo — “the biggest human being I have ever seen” — in a makeshift lineup comprised of five perimeter players. “He does so many different things,” Williams said of Pinson. “He can drive the ball to the basket. He can rebound. He can defend. He can make plays on the drive. We said from the beginning that he really does some good things.” Perhaps the best of those attributes is the effect he has on those around him. The constant smile that’s on his face and those off-the-court hijinks for which he’s become known mask a tenacious competitor who brings a toughness to the floor that the Tar Heels lacked while he was mending on the sideline. “Yeah, there’s a different edge,” teammate Jackson said. “He just comes out and competes and does as much as he possibly can, whether it’s scoring or doing other things. Today he came out and gave us some big baskets, rebounded the mess out of the ball and gave us some big things defensively.” For Pinson, it was just another day at the office. “I just try to bring that passion every time I come out on the court and play hard,” he said. “I’m going to try to do everything.”