Theo Pinson set the tone on the very first possession.
During the No. 13 North Carolina men’s basketball team’s 97-73 win against Tulane on Sunday afternoon, Pinson received a pass at the top of the arc. The senior from Greensboro lulled the Green Wave defender to sleep with a dribble from left to right, then exploded by him. He attacked the basket from the baseline on the right-hand side, threw down an emphatic two-hand slam and swung around on the rim for good measure.
The dunk was a statement. Despite playing seven games in 14 days, the Tar Heels were going to come out with energy and wear down Tulane on both ends of the floor.
The loss to Michigan State warned Pinson what would happen if North Carolina was flat. He knew that his team needed to overcome its fatigue and come out sharp.
“We saw what happened when we don’t have the right mindset going into the game,” Pinson said. “I’m glad the starting group came out and gave us a good boost early to show everybody that we’re here to play.”
The Tar Heels were indeed ready to play. A 21-4 run in the first seven minutes of the game put the game out of reach early. They dictated the pace by being active on defense and attacking the rim.
“I thought defensively in the first half that was maybe our best defensive half of the year,” head coach Roy Williams said. “I thought we were more active.”
North Carolina held the Green Wave to 29 points and 30.6 percent shooting from the field in the first half.
Along with Kenny Williams, Pinson, who finished the game with nine points, four rebounds and four assists, provided the energy for the defensive activity.
On one Green Wave possession, Williams dove to save a ball that led to a Pinson fast break dunk. On another, Williams rotated over to help on defense and drew a charge, his ninth of the season. On the ensuing possession, Williams stepped up and drained a three from the top of the arc.
The hustle plays from Williams and Pinson proved infectious.
After a turnover lead to a Tulane fast break, Joel Berry II sprinted back to the middle of the court. Hawking the ball like a free safety, he jumped up to pick off a pass intended for a Tulane player streaking toward the basket.
The Tar Heels were still not in the clear, as Berry lost the ball on the way down and Tulane scooped it up for what looked like an easy layup.
Pinson, however, wasn’t in the mood to give up easy layups. He sprinted back and stepped right in front of the Tulane player driving to the basket. He settled his feet, established position, and drew a charge.
“I think we got our guys’ attention when we were talking about playing better defense,” Roy Williams said.
Kenny Williams attributed the Tar Heels’ ability to be energetic despite seven games in 14 days to the team’s competitive fire.
“We have so many competitors on our team,” Williams said. "Once it’s time to get ready, everybody gets ready. We all know we’re tired a little bit, but we’ve been doing everything we could outside of practice, outside of games to keep our legs fresh and our bodies fresh today.”
Roy Williams was looking for improvement after being disappointed by the Tar Heels’ defensive effort in the last two games of the stretch, against Michigan and Davidson.
After every game, Williams shows his team clips of good things from previous games. Yet, when he looked for defensive highlights from each of the last two games, he couldn't find a single one to showcase.
After holding Tulane to 37.7 percent from the field, Williams should have no trouble finding a highlight this time.
Defensive improvement wasn’t the only reason for the Tar Heels' win. North Carolina was helped by another solid performance from Luke Maye, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds, his fifth 20-point, 10-rebound performance of the season. UNC also won the rebounding battle, 45-26.
After a thoroughly dominating performance, the Tar Heels will finally get a break.
“It’s been a tough stretch right here and they get a day off tomorrow,” Roy Williams said. “They haven’t had a lot of that recently.”