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.”