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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC men's basketball's passing in Pittsburgh clinches ACC share

North Carolina wing Theo Pinson (1) looks for an open pass around a defender from UVA during the game on Feb. 18. 

North Carolina wing Theo Pinson (1) looks for an open pass around a defender from UVA during the game on Feb. 18. 

Smith would have been impressed by how many times the No. 8 Tar Heels were pointing at one another in Saturday’s 85-67 win over Pittsburgh. UNC had 13 assists on 14 first-half buckets and 23 on 33 field goals for the game.

The Panthers (15-14, 4-12 ACC) did their best to put up an affront to the barrage of Tar Heel baskets by playing zone, which has given North Carolina (25-5, 13-3 ACC) trouble in the past in ACC road losses to Georgia Tech and Miami.

In those games, UNC was stagnant offensively. But the team also missed Theo Pinson — an unselfish wing and cerebral passer whose return has injected life into UNC’s zone offense — who led the Tar Heels with seven assists Saturday

“Theo’s never about scoring or getting the high points,” Joel Berry said. “He’s just out there trying to make a play.”

It’s not just Pinson. With just over a minute to go in the first half, Berry fumbled the ball and it ended up in Justin Jackson’s hands. He could have taken a contested 3-pointer, but Kennedy Meeks stood open on the baseline.

Meeks threw his hands up and Jackson found him with an overhead laser pass, his best of the day. Meeks’ layup was blocked, but he gathered the rebound and converted to give UNC a nine-point lead.

While running back on defense, Meeks faithfully raised one finger to the sky, pointing to the passer despite robbing Jackson of the assist.

In the second half, the senior forward returned the favor with a fast-break dish to Jackson, leading to what the junior wing believes to be his first in-game dunk on an opponent — coming over 6-foot-11, 300-pound Rozelle Nix, no less.

“Kennedy gave me a good pass,” Jackson said in the locker room, to which Meeks responded with a resounding “Yessir!”

Even senior forward Isaiah Hicks, mired in a recent slump, set a career high with six assists.

“I know I came in (the locker room), I was like, I’ve got to have at least five,” Hicks said. “I feel like I threw like three to Justin.”

In the first half, Jackson led all scorers with 13 points on five made baskets — all assisted. After UNC led at the half, 40-28, Pittsburgh switched to a man-to-man defense.

It didn’t matter. The Tar Heels kept slicing up the defense, as Hicks’ assist to Meeks with 3:39 left gave UNC a 20-point lead.

Meeks isn’t used to pointing at Hicks, though, and he didn’t want to give him too much credit.

“He had one bad turnover,” Meeks said jokingly. “If he would have had six to zero, that would have been good. So he was six to one.”

The Tar Heels have to pass well as a unit because Berry — who leads the team with 3.9 assists per game — isn’t a traditional pass-first player in the mold of former Tar Heel guard Kendall Marshall.

Instead, it’s a team effort. Pinson sprinkles in assists, backup guards Nate Britt and Seventh Woods keep the ball moving and the big men read double teams and pass to open shooters.

With the win over Pittsburgh and No. 10 Duke’s loss to Miami, North Carolina clinched its 31st ACC regular-season championship. The point for that accomplishment, and for the 18-point win over the Panthers, should go to UNC’s passing.

@bauman_john

sports@dailytarheel.com

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