In the final moments of North Carolina’s 81-49 victory against Georgia Tech on Tuesday night – the Tar Heels’ most decisive ever against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta – UNC’s walk-ons played alongside players who hadn’t seen action in months.
UNC (21-9, 11-6 ACC) had approached this game warily. The Tar Heels dominated Georgia Tech just 11 days earlier but the Yellow Jackets, who have experienced no fortune but bad fortune amid a long season, had so often been so close to winning.
For the second time in less than two weeks, though, UNC ensured there would be no drama against a team used to losing close games. This one was never close – not in the beginning and certainly not near the end, when Theo Pinson, a freshman forward who played for the first time since Jan. 21, made a 3-pointer to extend the Tar Heels’ lead into the 30s.
This was a night when UNC became healthier, both physically and mentally. Only a week earlier UNC had endured one of its most difficult nights of the season during an ugly loss against N.C. State. Now came one of the Tar Heels’ easiest victories.
“Our mojo has been all over the place this ACC play,” said junior guard Marcus Paige, who finished with seven points. “We thought we had it and then we went through a stretch. … It’s been up and down a lot.
“But I think we’re really confident right now and we’re just really excited for this game coming up Saturday. We did what we wanted to tonight, and that’s take care of business without looking ahead to Duke.”
The victory mirrored its recent performance against Georgia Tech (12-18, 3-15) in the Smith Center, where UNC had little difficulty building a large lead during an 89-60 victory. UNC led 39-21 at halftime Tuesday after scoring 21 points off 11 turnovers.
With a half to play, that was the second-most points UNC had scored off of turnovers this season. It finished with 25 points off turnovers.
“I think that was the whole key to the whole game if it was not the injuries to Brian’s club,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, referencing Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory.
Indeed Georgia Tech was depleted, especially after Marcus Georges-Hunt, its leading scorer, suffered an ankle injury three minutes into the game. He didn’t return and without him the Yellow Jackets, never known for their offense this season, struggled especially to score.
They struggled to pass, too, and sometimes, to dribble. UNC seized control with an 11-0 run midway through the first half, built largely on its scramble defense, which utilizes traps on the perimeter.
After that run – bolstered by two 3-pointers from freshman guard Joel Berry – it was never close.
In a game with no shortage of bright spots for UNC – Pinson’s return, the defensive performance, the success in turning turnovers into points – Berry’s shooting was not to be lost. He made a key 3-pointer in UNC’s victory at Miami on Saturday, and he shot with confidence Tuesday.
If he can do that consistently, it would go a long way toward answering a question that still hangs over the Tar Heels in early March: Who else outside of Paige can be relied upon to make a shot from the perimeter?
“I know I can shoot, and the coaching staff knows that I can shoot,” said Berry, who led UNC with a season-high 15 points. “So I’ve been trying to just put up extra shots and hopefully it’ll pay off in the game and today it did.
“And now I’ve just got to keep doing the same thing.”
For the first time this season, UNC’s leading scorers were two freshmen: Berry and forward Justin Jackson, who finished with 13 points. They were two of six UNC players to score at least eight points.
And for the first time this season, the Tar Heels won an ACC game while Brice Johnson scored in single digits. After scoring 22 points at Miami, Johnson missed eight of nine attempts from the field and finished with two points.
“I don’t think I’ll get the same question (I got) at the conference call on Monday this week about how consistent he’s been,” Williams said, referencing a recent question about Johnson’s improved consistency.
Offensively, at least, the Tar Heels had struggled in conference play when Johnson hadn’t played well. That wasn’t so Tuesday. UNC shot 53.1 percent and the game was so one-sided late that Williams inserted Pinson, who had sat out for more than a month with a broken foot.
“He told me after pregame that he didn’t want to take a chance on me but he was going to play me on Saturday (against Duke),” Pinson said. “But he asked me before I went in, do you think it would be beneficial if you go in and get a couple of minutes now. I was like, it wouldn’t hurt.”
Stilman White and Luke Davis, reserve guards who had also been hurt, also played in the final minutes. For Davis, it was his first playing time of the season. White hadn’t played since December.
It was that kind of night for UNC, one easy enough – and without any stress late – to afford a chance for the walk-ons to play, and for White and Davis to play for the first time in a while. UNC made it look easy the first time against Georgia Tech, too, and then followed that with a loss against N.C. State.
Now comes the rematch with Duke on Saturday.
Williams didn’t think his team suffered a letdown against N.C. State. Even so, he said, “If we have a letdown this time, guys, we don’t have a freakin’ heart.”