BROOKLYN — In Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II’s very first game against Duke, the North Carolina men’s basketball team imploded.
On that February 2015 night in Cameron Indoor Stadium, UNC watched a nine-point lead with 2:41 remaining slip away and lost in overtime, 92-90.
The pair of then first-years had little impact on the game. Berry scored just three points that night, and Pinson never touched the floor as he recovered from a left foot injury.
Friday night’s ACC Tournament semifinal brought the seniors their likely final meeting with the Blue Devils, and it nearly played out the same way. But this time Berry, Pinson and the sixth-seeded Tar Heels (25-9) did just enough and escaped with a 74-69 win over second-seeded Duke (26-7).
“I've seen a million games and I've never seen anything like that,” head coach Roy Williams said. “You can't make that crap up. It's just something that happens.”
With 5:33 left, the Tar Heels seemed well on their way to the ACC championship. Luke Maye hit a jumper to reach 17 points for the game and extend UNC’s lead 72-56.
But then, it all stopped. North Carolina failed to score for the next 5:30, letting Duke claw back. Only when Grayson Allen's game-tying 3-pointer missed long and Pinson hit a pair of free throws with three seconds left, could Williams and the Tar Heels rest easy.
Countless plays should have been turning points. Kenny Williams tried to scoop a loose ball with an open layup in sight but slipped on a wet spot. Less than a minute later, Williams had a three bounce in and out. Then there was Maye’s transition dunk try rejected by Marvin Bagley III, Cameron Johnson rimming out a trio of open threes and the Tar Heels turning the ball over six times in the game’s final five minutes.
“We just stopped being aggressive,” Berry said, “and instead of us continuing to push, we were letting them be the aggressors. We won the game, but it was a little scary at the end.”
All of those moments could have fit perfectly in past UNC collapses. But Friday night was different thanks to a series of “winning plays,” as Pinson called them. With everything caving in around them, these Tar Heels maintained their composure.
“I honestly didn’t get too stressed out,” Pinson said. “It didn’t look like we were playing because we didn’t score. (But) we made big time plays.”
With 2:25 left and the lead cut to nine, Pinson — playing with four fouls — stood tall against Bagley and drew a critical charge. Two minutes later, with Duke trailing by only three, Williams also took a charge on Allen (who was also assessed a Flagrant 1 in the first half for what looked to be an intentional hip/butt check on Garrison Brooks).
Defensive intensity had been lacking for periods of time earlier in the season, but it helped carry UNC to wins the past three nights in Brooklyn.
“We’re getting consistent effort from all five guys on the court,” Kenny Williams said. “I think it’s starting to click, we’re starting to realize, ‘OK, we can do this every night.’ We’re starting to bring it.”
The defense held the Blue Devils to 6-23 shooting from three, just six days after the Tar Heels allowed Duke to shoot 8-15 from deep in the second half of a 74-64 defeat. It contributed to the 16-point lead – a cushion UNC needed every bit of in the Barclays Center.
Almost lost in the wreckage was how well UNC passed to carve up Duke’s zone. The Tar Heels assisted on 24 of their 28 made field goals. Pinson led the team with seven assists, while Williams and Berry added six each.
“We wanted to share the ball,” Johnson said. “We knew how we could attack them by getting it inside and attacking that middle area.”
Thanks to its passing display, UNC also saw five players score in double figures – including Brooks who posted 10 points off the bench.
The combination of balanced scoring and renewed defensive intensity bodes well for the Tar Heels as they move on to play top seed Virginia on Saturday night for the ACC title, and the NCAA Tournament next week.
But perhaps the biggest asset for UNC moving forward is its senior leadership. In their four years, Berry and Pinson have seen it all, from devastating collapses to national championships. Now, add avoiding disaster to that list.