Three straight conference losses hadn’t befallen the University of North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team since 2014, yet the Heels came back from South Carolina after last Tuesday’s defeat at Clemson matching that dubious streak. Clemson’s early onslaught of three-pointers left the Heels in such a deep hole that they couldn’t ride the wave of Cameron Johnson’s career-high thirty-two-point night to a comeback against the Tigers.
A running theme for Carolina seems to be that they can’t get more than two guys hot at a time. Whether it’s Theo Pinson and Luke Maye, Johnson and Joel Berry, or any other hot-that-night duo the Heels field, two studs carrying a bunch of duds is becoming all too common on game nights.
(A quick aside to Clemson fans: I don’t care how infrequently you beat Carolina. You don’t rush the court when your twentieth-ranked team beats the nineteenth-ranked team. It’s unbecoming and frankly ridiculous.
A few short nights later, the Heels looked as though they might come perilously close to dropping their fourth straight game against Pitt last Saturday. Their first half was a sloppy, playless version of playground ball that found the reeling Heels running up and down the court at a furious pace. Turnovers abounded, dumb shots were plentiful, and rhythm was nonexistent.
When such fast-paced ball works, it’s high octane and unstoppable. When it doesn’t, as it didn’t in Saturday’s first half, it’s a rowdy, reckless mess worthy of mid-major programs’ run-and-huck style rather than the headier and more physical iterations of basketball blue bloods.
The second half played out like an entirely different game, however. Carolina slowed their pace and ran things that resembled actual basketball plays, using the shot clock and moving the ball in and around the low post. At points, Carolina looked as if they were toying with Pitt, almost as if they were the varsity squad, testing the limits of their offense on their junior varsity.
Theo Pinson relished the point-guard role, whether Joel Berry was on the court on not. He took a far more active role after the halftime break, and his eight assists easily could have easily been upward of thirteen as his teammates fumbled away more than a few laser-sharp passes.
The Nitty Gritty
Prior to Thursday’s home game against Duke, the Heels will enjoy four days off, providing some much-needed rest and an opportunity for Theo Pinson to heal.
Pinson, who hurt his shoulder against Clemson, ran into the Tar Heels’ locker room after only a minute or so of action against Pitt. An audible gasp of concern filled the rafters at the Smith Center, and the attended mass was hushed with anticipation for a few moments until Pinson dashed back out to the scorer’s table and immediately re-entered the game.
The Good News
In the second half against Pittsburgh, the Heels looked like a fluid team playing on the same page for the first time in a few weeks. Maye, Berry, Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson, Garrison Brooks, and Sterling Manley all scored in double digits.
This was a much, much-needed win as the Heels head into their first of two matchups with the Blue Devils. While still overrated in the polls, Duke is one of the country’s better squads, and Carolina needs to bring a game resembling the one they played in the second half against Pitt rather than the three preceding matchups if they want to knock Duke off at the Dean Dome.
Also, the hated Blue Devils dropped their fourth game of the season to an unranked St. John’s squad, which hadn’t won a game since late December. So regardless of what happens on Thursday, that’s good news.
The Bad News
We in the stands looked like a lock for 2-for-1 Bojangles biscuits, as the Heels notched ninety-plus points with four or so minutes remaining. (Bojangles offers a promotion that takes effect whenever the Heels crack triple digits
.) The crowd ramped up with a chorus of “WE WANT BISCUITS!” but our buttery hopes were dashed when Roy Williams cleared the bench, giving his walk-ons and left-benchers a few glorious minutes of the furious-paced hoops that only overly excited walk-ons can provide.
It’s always a treat to see five unheralded guys running the court at the Dean Dome, and you can only imagine how their hearts must have been pumping, how their parents at home or in the stands must be bursting with pride, and how their uncountable hours on the practice court and in the weight room were finally yielding their presumptive childhood dreams.
But the hell with all that. We wanted biscuits.
Sadly, the Heels could only muster ninety-six on the scoreboard, leaving the fifteen thousand or so in attendance conflicted—elated with such a dominant win, dejected that we’d have to pay full price for a second biscuit.
And despite the aforementioned embarrassing loss to the Johnnies, many still consider Duke a consideration for a top seed come tourney time. How Duke drops three games to unranked opponents and is still a top-ten team is beyond a lot of people, all homering aside. But many argue that the very real Duke bias is alive and well, as the Blue Devils only dropped five spots in this week’s poll.
Whatever. It’s always good to see a big red NO over at this slice of internet brilliance