But it was the senior forward — someone who didn’t solely lead in any statistical category in the Thursday night contest — who had the ball in his hands during the two most critical stretches of the game.
Pinson was involved in important plays that began the Tar Heels’ 16-2 run at the start of the second half — and that meant battling with No. 9 Duke’s taller frontcourt for a defensive rebound, cleaning up the offensive glass, starting a fast break with a steal or driving and kicking to a wideopen Luke Maye on the block.
His play helped rally a team effort. After getting out-rebounded 21-16 by the break, North Carolina responded. The Tar Heels ended the game with a 44-38 advantage on the boards. Pinson had seven rebounds.
“I think at times in the first half we were playing hard, but we didn’t quite use our brain fully,” Johnson said. “So I think when we came out in the second half, especially in the beginning, we kind of put it all together.”
The second stretch came with less than two minutes to go in the game, when Pinson kickstarted the last two offensive set pieces for UNC. And, of course, he had the ball in his hands when he all but concluded the newest chapter of the great rivalry’s history.
After Pinson scorched the net with his final dunk — and Duke converted a futile 3-pointer to bring the final margin from eight to five — the senior needed to release some more energy before retiring to postgame interviews.
He hopped on one of the chairs at the end of the Tar Heel bench, turned to the UNC students, who’d dedicated the better part of their days to waiting in line to witness one of the most glorious spectacles in all of sports, and let out a roar.
And, for a moment after his yell, he just smiled at the sold-out crowd. He didn’t gaze long, but it was clear that after a night of giving all he had, he wanted to take something special in.
His mind, just like when his body was mid-air moments earlier, was flying again.
“Tonight is one of those nights,” he said, “where you just know you’re going to miss this. It’s one of those nights.”