One thing you cannot teach in basketball is experience. Wake Forest learned that the hard way on Saturday.
With 3:06 left in the second half, the North Carolina men’s basketball team trailed the Demon Deacons, 67-65. Graduate transfer Cam Johnson entered the game for first-year big Garrison Brooks, hoping to provide a spark for a UNC team that was in danger of losing consecutive home contests. With the substitution, UNC (12-2, 1-0 ACC) had its “death lineup” on the court — a small-ball squad that features Johnson, Kenny Williams, Luke Maye, Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson.
At the 2:23 mark the Demon Deacons' (7-6, 0-1 ACC) lead had swelled to four. A collective hush fell over the Smith Center. The anxiety was palpable in the crowd.
Slowly, but surely, the Tar Heels fought back. The two-man game of Pinson and Maye that won UNC an Elite Eight contest against Kentucky last year prevailed. With two minutes on the clock, Pinson drove, and somehow delivered a sidearm pass around a defender to Maye, who scored a layup untouched.
The battle continued to rage back and forth, and with 51.4 seconds left, Pinson went to the line with his team down 69-67 after fighting for a defensive rebound and driving down the court.
Pinson remembered a similar circumstance in the Bahamas when he was a first-year and had a chance to tie the game at the line for his team. That day, he missed — but Pinson is a different man today than that wide-eyed first-year. The senior calmly stepped to the line and nailed both free throws, and the anxious crowd erupted.
The score remained knotted with 33 seconds left. Three seconds separated the shot clock and game clock. Another Pinson rebound — his seventh and final on the game — after a missed Wake Forest free throw gave the Tar Heels the chance to correct their earlier mistakes.
And with the experienced lineup featuring five veterans, there seemed to be no concerns.
Berry, who just months ago willed his team to a victory in the NCAA Championship game against Gonzaga, drove into the lane. He evaded two defenders and lofted a floater over the outstretched arms of a 7-foot-1 Doral Moore, Wake Forest's starting center. The Smith Center crowd, which was threatening to bring the house down just seconds before, grew silent. All eyes watched the ball’s path to the basket.
With 10 seconds left, the ball dropped through the net for Berry’s 16th point of the game and gave the Tar Heels a two-point lead and the eventual 73-69 victory. The Tar Heels ended the game on an 8-0 run.
When the going got tough, the experienced Tar Heels showed up.
At 2:19 remaining in the first half, head coach Roy Williams similarly employed his small lineup. The five finished the opening half on an 8-3 run, including hitting three of four shots from the field.
“You have to respect that we have 3-point shooters out there," Berry said of the small lineup. “It gives us more opportunities to be able to drive to the rim, have someone to help over and that’s when you can kick it out or get back to the basket and make a layup”.
After trailing by four with 2:23 left in the game, the Tar Heels shot 2-3 afterward and hit all four free throws to win the sloppy affair.
As rough as the Tar Heels looked at times — shooting just 39.7 percent from the field — the experience carried the team. The confidence of Williams, Maye, Berry and Pinson never wavered.
Those players have been there before. Add in Johnson, who has two years of ACC basketball under his belt already, and that gives UNC a lineup with five upperclassmen. More importantly, it gives the Tar Heels a lineup that can hit shots from anywhere.
“You can’t help off of him," Pinson, with a grin on his face, said of Johnson. "You help off, it’s cashed, especially here. He can shoot the crap out of the ball here."
The aforementioned Johnson finished with 11 points on 4-7 shooting in 28 minutes of play. As he continues to return from injury, his role could grow and potentially persuade Roy Williams to utilize his “death lineup” more than just in crunch time.
“We went with experience over anything,” Williams said. “Cam was the only non-returning player we had out there at the end, just for more experience”.
The experience worked. It’s not how you start a half, it’s how you finish it, and the Tar Heels finished both halves on substantial runs. However, Williams was still not impressed.
"I wish I had a lineup that I liked," he said, "but I did not see one out there today."
The Tar Heels played their best basketball today with the small lineup on the floor. Rebounding was not a concern, as Maye finished with 15 boards and the Tar Heels out-rebounded the Demon Deacons, 49-34.
Williams insists that this particular lineup, despite its productivity, is not one he is enamored with.
But with a tough road stretch ahead for the team — playing three of its next four ACC games on the road — he may not have a choice.