Good teams find other ways to win. North Carolina did on Thursday against Miami in the ACC tournament.
UNC’s All-ACC players, guard Joel Berry and forward Luke Maye, struggled but the Tar Heels took care of the Hurricanes anyway to set up a third matchup with Duke on Friday in the semifinals.
Senior wing Theo Pinson scored a career-high 25 points to lift the sixth-seeded Tar Heels to an 82-65 win.
“It was a weird game,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
It was and not just because parts of the second half looked more like hand-to-hand combat than James Naismith’s game. Maye and Berry combined to shoot 5 of 29 and score 13 points. It was the third time this season UNC’s top two scorers had combined for less than 20 points but first time in a win.
“We’ve always felt like we’re not just one guy, not just two guys,” Williams said. “The way we’ve always tried to coach is to have kids who will buy in and be a part of the family, buy in to be a part of the team and know when one guy is down, somebody has to pick them up.”
That was the wiry senior on Thursday night in a payback win over the Hurricanes (22-9), who ruined senior night nine days ago in Chapel Hill with a 91-88 win at the buzzer. Pinson made 9 of 12 shots and added 11 rebounds. Pinson stood out in a physical game that.
Berry and wing Cam Johnson each went down temporarily with injury scares for UNC (24-9) in a wild second half. Both Berry (ankle) and Johnson (hip) returned but Berry couldn’t quite find his shooting stroke. The senior guard finished 4 of 14 from the floor with 11 points while Maye made just 1 of 15 shots and had a season-low two points.
There was nothing wrong with Pinson, who matched aggression with aggression. With Miami’s own do-everything utility player Anthony Lawrence hobbled with a sprained ankle, the Canes couldn’t matchup with Pinson.
Pinson’s 3 at 7:30 in the second half put UNC up 62-56 and the Heels were able to control the game from there. Miami guard Ja’Quan Newton, who hit the game-winner on Feb. 27, had another strong game (17 points) for the Canes. But Miami shot just 31.6 percent from the 3-point line, after shooting 50 percent in Chapel Hill.
The Canes also had 20 points off turnovers in the first meeting and only five on Thursday in Brooklyn. Newton took the game over down the stretch in Chapel Hill but Pinson had all the answers this time.
Pinson’s second 3 at 4:25 put the Heels up 69-63 and then his two-handed dunk a minute later, put an exclamation point on the win.
The game could not have started much worse for UNC. The Heels missed their first 13 shots and trailed 14-0 before Williams went with a wholesale substitution. Sophomore guard Seventh Woods completed a three-point play to finally get the Tar Heels on the board at the 12:51 mark.
UNC took its first lead at 7 minutes later and then the two teams traded points down the stretch. Then Miami freshman Lonnie Walker fouled Johnson with 0.4 seconds left in the half on a wild three-quarter court shot. Johnson made all three free throws to give UNC a 32-31 lead at the half. Johnson finished 13 points and Kenny Williams added 11.
“We have guys on our team who are capable of having big nights,” Berry said.
None bigger than Pinson. Thanks to the senior from Greensboro, it will be Round 3 between Duke and Carolina for the second straight year in Brooklyn.