Tar Heels go small on the way to earning big victory

With Pinson providing a spark, along with a double-double, Luke Maye pulling down a career-high 15 rebounds and the trio of Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Hicks combining for 70 of their teams points, UNC rolled to a 96-83 victory

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Jan 14

CHAPEL HILL — The North Carolina basketball team was going to face a size disadvantage against Florida State on Saturday even if concussed freshmen center Tony Bradley had been able to play. So what did coach Roy Williams to combat the taller Seminoles? He went even smaller. Forced by foul trouble to big men Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, Williams threw together a makeshift lineup that featured five perimeter players — including 6-foot-6 Theo Pinson in the low post — that gave UNC’s ninth-ranked opponent fits. With Pinson providing a spark, along with a double-double, Luke Maye pulling down a career-high 15 rebounds and the trio of Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Hicks combining for 70 of their team’s points, the 11th-ranked Tar Heels rolled to a 96-83 victory at the Smith Center that firmly establishes them as the team to beat in the ultra-competitive ACC. “There were some really weird lineups out there,” Williams said afterward. “That’s the first time in 29 years as a coach I’ve ever had five guys out there with no post player, but we had Kennedy with two fouls, Luke with two and Isaiah with two. I wanted to have the at the end of the game as opposed to the last two minutes of the first half.” Ignited by a raucous sellout crowd that provided a big-game feel, UNC (16-3, 4-1 ACC) burst out to an early lead on the strength of Hicks’ offensive aggressiveness and a team defense ratcheted up several notches from the second half of Wednesday’s sometimes sloppy win at Wake Forest. But the momentum began to shift once Meeks, Hicks and Maye — the only three inside players available — all got into foul trouble. That’s when Williams took drastic action. With his team leading 42-37 and 2:57 remaining in the half, the Hall of Fame coach sent out the group of Pinson, Berry, Jackson, backup point guard Nate Britt and freshman wing Brandon Robinson. Although they gave up two straight baskets, including one by FSU seven-footer Michael Ojo, the undersized Tar Heels finished the half by scoring seven straight to extend their advantage to 50-41 at the break. “When coach was calling out the lineup, he was actually laughing because we’ve never practiced that before,” Berry said. “But you know, we’re basketball players. Sometimes you’ve got to face adversity and I think we did a good job of facing that and just competing. We went out there and got the job done.” They did it again in the second half, only this time with Maye on the floor instead of Robinson, with an almost identical result. After giving up the first two baskets of their two minute, 17-second run, the small lineup finished the sequence by scoring the next seven points to turn a precarious three-point lead into a much more comfortable 66-56 cushion. All told with Meeks and Hicks both out of the game at the same time, UNC outscored FSU 30-20 and outrebounded the bigger Seminoles 21-11. “You could definitely see one of their guys at the free throw line say ‘hey coach, they’ve got five guards out here. What do you want us to do?” Pinson recalled. “I telling the guys on the court if I get the (rebound), just go. I’m going to find someone and try to make a play.” Pinson, playing in only his third game since returning from a broken right foot, made his share of those plays — the most impactful was a tomahawk dunk off a drive with 5:45 left that sent the Smith Center crowd into a frenzy. Berry contributed an even bigger basket moments later with a difficult drive and layup as the shot clock ran down to punctuate a 10-2 Tar Heels run that finally put the Seminoles away once and for all. Berry finished the game with 26 points while Jackson and Hicks added 22 each, becoming the first trio of UNC players to score 20 or more points in the same game since John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes did it in a 2011 NCAA tournament game against LIU. But while those three did the bulk of the scoring, it was Pinson and Maye handled most of the dirty work. Pinson had 12 points to go along with his career-high 10 rebounds, three assists and a steal. Maye’s rebound total was also a personal best while playing 25 minutes, most of matched against the 7-foot-1, 304-pound Ojo — a player Pinson described as “the biggest human being I’ve ever seen.” UNC outrebounded FSU 56-34 overall and 21-9 on the offensive glass, leading to 25 second-chance points. “Coach told us we were going to go small a lot and we did a lot of good things,” the 6-8, 235-pound Maye said. “The main thing with the small lineup is