CHAPEL HILL — Two things went through Theo Pinson’s mind as he watched rival Duke lose to St. John’s, a team that has not won a game in its conference this season.
The first involved a little gamesmanship.
“You just wish it was (an ACC) game,” the North Carolina guard said with a wry grin.
His next thought had a more cautionary tone, considering that later Saturday, his Tar Heels were scheduled to play a Pittsburgh team that had also yet to win a conference game.
“You think about that type of stuff. Is it their day?” Pinson said. “So we needed to make sure we came out here aggressive and make sure they didn’t have any life.”
It took nearly a half for UNC to finally break the Panthers’ spirit. But with Luke Maye and Kenny Williams both posting bounceback performances and freshman big men Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley providing some badly needed help inside, the Tar Heels pulled away for a 96-65 victory as Smith Center.
Though the win wasn’t anything to get overly excited about, considering that Pitt is now 0-11 in the ACC (8-16 overall), it did provide UNC with a bit of relief after three straight losses while helping to rebuild some confidence heading into Thursday’s rivalry showdown against Duke.
“It was huge,” said Pinson, who only scored two points, but bounced back from an early injury scare to lead the team with 13 rebounds and eight assists.
“Now we can go into Thursday night and just play. We don’t have to worry about being on a losing streak. We can just go in there, play basketball and play the way we know.”
It took awhile Saturday, but the Tar Heels (17-7, 6-5) finally got back to doing what they do best — scoring in transition and dominating the boards on both ends of the floor.
They even did a better job of defending the 3-point shot, something that proved to be their Achilles’ heel during those three straight losses to Virginia Tech, NC State and Clemson.
Although Pitt came out hot, making 8 of its 14 attempts from beyond the arc, the Panthers cooled off in the second half, hitting on just two of their final 16 long-distance shots.
UNC went 11 of 27, by contrast, using a hot 3-point shooting touch to break open the game with spurts just before and after halftime.
Trailing 32-31 with 3:19 left, the Tar Heels finished the half with a 14-2 run, ignited by eight straight points from Cameron Johnson.
The former Panther, who came to UNC as a graduate transfer, looked as though he was pressing at times. But he still managed to contribute 14 points and four assists to get the better of his old team.
“There was a little extra emotion playing against your former team,” Johnson said. “I just tried to come out and make it feel like any other game.”
After Johnson got the Tar Heels going late in the first half, his teammates took over by putting together an 11-2 salvo to open the second half that included a pair of Williams 3-pointers. Maye also was also front-and-center in the game-breaking run, on his way to 26 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals.
That was a vast improvement from his subpar four-point performance at Clemson four days earlier. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. In the three previous games in which he’d been held to single-digit scoring, the junior forward has come back to have big games his next time out.
Williams, meanwhile, broke a string of four straight games scoring six or fewer points by hitting for 15 Saturday. His 3 for 5 night from 3-point range also broke a drought in which he had gone 1 for his last 13, prompting coach Roy Williams to respond with a touch of sarcasm.
“I said hello to him,” Roy Williams said. “I hadn’t seen Kenny Williams in a couple of weeks. I congratulated him for showing up. I like the fact that he made some baskets in the second half.”
Williams wasn’t the only Tar Heel to return from the MIA list.
Big men Brooks and Manley, who have become afterthoughts since UNC’s switch to a smaller lineup, contributed 10 points each and even saw some time on the court together as Roy Williams looked to try to get them more involved.
“I think we gained a little bit of trust with him tonight,” Brooks said. “When you’re in, you have to do your job. If you do your job well, with another freshman in the game, that helps him put you in the game later.”
While Roy Williams acknowledged that both young bigs made positive strides Saturday, he made a point to mention that they can still do more — noting that they mustered only three rebounds between them.
That didn’t matter on this occasion, as the Tar Heels outrebounded the Panthers 47-28 and scored 22 points on their 16 offensive boards.
“It’s just good to be able to get a win tonight,” point guard Joel Berry said. “Coming off three straight losses, it was hard for me to sleep, hard for me to go through each and every day trying to be happy. I was just happy to see our guys out there having fun and I want to keep that going.”