Theo Pinson's career-high 25 points -- and monster second-half dunk -- helped North Carolina come back from 14-0 deficit to start game and defeat Miami to reach semifinals of ACC Tournament. (Photo by David Welker/Atlantic Coast Conference, used with official permission)
His team having given up a 14-0 run to begin the game, and having missed each of its first 13 shots, Roy Williams made an unusual substitution, benching all five of North Carolina's starters in favor of a second unit comprised of three freshmen and two sophomores.
The change in tactics worked, as the Tar Heels quickly recovered to take the lead seven minutes later, then used the second half to assert their will and gain a measure of retribution for last week's loss on senior night at the Smith Center.
Following UNC's lackluster start, a 19-4 run vaulted the defending national champions back into the lead, an advantage they would eventually reclaim over Miami as Theo Pinson powered his way to 25 points and 11 rebounds -- the former a career-high -- in an 82-65 victory over the Hurricanes in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
"At the timeout, I told them -- and I really meant it -- let's give these five guys a chance," Williams said of his line-change substitution shortly before the Tar Heels proceeded to outscore Miami by an 82-51 margin over the final 32:58 of regulation. "If they don't turn around and start playing better, then I'll put you back in and let them sit the rest of the half. And I really meant that. I thought that was huge for us getting back in the game."
UNC (24-9) survived an uncharacteristically slow start, which began a 1-for-15 evening for forward Luke Maye, who did post 13 rebounds to slightly offset his lack of points. The Tar Heels also survived injury scares to two of their starters, as Joel Berry II rolled an ankle and Cameron Johnson suffered a right hip injury, but both were able to come away in good order and eventually return to the court.
Following the UNC run to take the lead, the margin on the scoreboard remained within one possession until Miami (22-9) forged a 29-25 lead with 1:27 remaining in the first half, but the Tar Heels quickly snuffed out any chance of the Hurricanes regaining control with a 7-2 spurt to go into the locker room with a 32-31 halftime lead, the last points of that sequence coming when Johnson was fouled on a three-point heave at the buzzer by Lonnie Walker IV. Johnson subsequently made all three free throws to swing the pendulum, as well as the momentum for the final 20 minutes.
"I really thought that was a very typical situation in terms of us not being as sharp mentally as we needed to be," Miami head coach Jim Larranaga said of the foul at the end of the opening stanza. "We just didn't make smart decisions. We had a nice lead, we were playing well, and all of a sudden, we started rushing. It was definitely a shift in the momentum."
The two teams traded blows in the opening minutes of the second half before a pair of Berry free throws put UNC in front for good with 10:30 remaining in regulation. Miami pulled within four in a valiant effort to stay with the Tar Heels, but a 13-0 run over the final 3:50 -- highlighted by a spectacular two-handed Pinson dunk -- sealed the victory and a semifinal showdown with Duke for the second year in a row.
"I thought Theo was sensational," said Williams of Pinson, who became the first UNC player with 25 or more points and 11 or more rebounds in an ACC tournament game since Joseph Forte in 2001. "I've said many times he's a play-maker, and in some ways, maybe as good a play-maker as anybody I've ever coached in 30 years as a head coach."
"We just take it one game at a time," Pinson added when broached with the topic of facing Duke. "Like me and Coach mentioned yesterday, you can't win the championship unless you win game one, you can't win the championship unless you win game two. Game three is against Duke. We're excited and they're excited also, I'm sure, and we're going to try to do everything we can to win the game."