His first try was too low, an errant alley-oop attempt that nearly sent forward Isaiah Hicks out of bounds to retrieve the loose ball. But the senior’s return volley was too high, forcing Pinson into the air and over a Miami defender.
Twenty feet away, 6-foot-11 Tony Bradley stood under the basket, eyes locked on Pinson. The North Carolina bench saw it, too. If Hicks couldn’t corral one, surely Bradley could.
“With those two, I know I can throw it up at any point and they’re gonna go get it,” Pinson said.
So the moment his feet touched the floor, Pinson hurtled the ball straight toward the hoop. Too straight. The ball stopped short of Bradley’s outstretched arms and swished through the nylon.
“Nobody else could do it except Theo,” head coach Roy Williams said.
Three points later, No. 6 UNC held its largest lead yet with just over eight minutes to go in its 78-53 win over Miami in Thursday’s ACC Tournament semifinal. As the Barclays Center erupted with laughter and applause, the junior wing stood with his hands at his side.
It was that kind of night for top-seeded UNC (27-6, 14-4 ACC), whose 21 assists picked apart the zone defense the ninth-seeded Hurricanes (21-11, 10-8 ACC) employed.
It worked in January, when North Carolina couldn’t crack the Miami zone in a 77-62 loss. But that team was without Pinson, who suffered his second injury of the season two days before the game against Virginia Tech.
On Thursday, the 6-foot-6 wing was at full strength, picking apart the Hurricanes’ zone with a team-high six dimes to lead UNC in assists for the seventh time in 14 games.
“There was a big hole in the middle,” Pinson said. “And I tried, as much as I can, to just get it in there.”
He could have had a seventh assist, if his pass to Bradley was a touch lower or his dish to Hicks a few inches higher. But he split the difference — notching his first 3-pointer since Feb. 25 in a win at Pittsburgh.
“It definitely wasn’t a good pass if it went in the basket,” Justin Jackson said.
Minutes later, UNC’s per-game assists leader tested his newfound 3-point touch. After catching a pass from Joel Berry on wing, Pinson set his feet just behind the line.
It could have been Berry’s sixth assist. Instead, it missed the rim.
“I said, ‘Coach, that was the basketball gods telling me: We gave you a lucky one,’” Pinson said. “You gotta suffer for that one.”
In the end, it didn’t matter. Pinson broke a two-game scoreless streak and fell one assist shy of tying his season high.
“If it was somebody else, I would have tried to strangle him,” Williams said. “But Theo you just say, ‘Well, you’ve gotta understand it’s him.’”