The day before North Carolina played for its first trip to the Final Four since 2009, sophomore forward Theo Pinson moseyed onto the podium where four of his teammates and coach Roy Williams were fielding questions.
“Where’s my chair at? Where my name at?” Pinson joked.
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A little more than 24 hours later, Pinson’s name was mentioned seemingly every possession as the Tar Heels repelled the toughest second-half push they received on the way to the Final Four and got Pinson a return trip to the media room.
“We invited Theo because he was going to invite himself, so we might as well just make it legit,” Williams said.
Pinson’s final numbers weren’t gaudy in Sunday’s regional final – six points, two rebounds and one steal in 23 minutes – but his impact off the bench was undeniable as top-seeded North Carolina turned back sixth-seeded Notre Dame 88-74 at the Wells Fargo Center.
For a while, it appeared the Tar Heels (32-6) wouldn’t need any heroics after the early stages of the second half. After stretching a lead to five points just before the break, Kennedy Meeks scored North Carolina’s first eight points out of the locker room to put North Carolina up 51-40.
But the Fighting Irish (24-12), which ranked No. 9 nationally entering the day in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, had a 12-0 push in it. A technical foul on Brice Johnson helped prod the rally further, and the Tar Heels found themselves down 52-51 with 12:59 remaining.
Pinson re-entered the game just before Steve Vasturia’s go-ahead layup, and he wouldn’t depart until the final horn. But he made a near-instantaneous impact as North Carolina counterpunched its way to Houston and a date with 10th-seeded Syracuse on Saturday.
It was Pinson who corralled a steal from Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson just before the Tar Heels managed to call timeout with 12:17 to go. The second of his two missed free throws led to Isaiah Hicks’ acrobatic tip-in to put North Carolina up 59-52.
Pinson posted his first points of the run moments later with a layup, but delivered arguably the most impressive play of the night a possession later. After accepting an outlet pass from Kennedy Meeks, Pinson ran a 2-on-1 break to set up an alley-oop to Isaiah Hicks to make it 63-52 and restore the 11-point advantage.
“I caught the ball, got a little nervous – nah, I’m just playing,” Pinson said as Johnson cracked up beside him. “I caught the ball, I saw Isaiah and he was pointing up, so I was like ‘I’m going to give him a chance.’ I just threw it up there and he took care of the rest.”
He added a putback a minute later in response to a pair of Notre Dame free throws to get the margin back to double digits.
“I think because we were playing small, they adjusted and didn’t have two big guys on the court a lot of times,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “He was able to play like a four man and guard a [V.J.] Beachem or a (Steve) Vasturia. The problem is on the other end, he’s hard to keep off the backboard. Whether he’s playing three or four, he’s active. They have a lot of trampolining guys. We just couldn’t secure that first miss and that hurt us.”
The effort was plenty enough to earn Pinson an invitation to the podium after the game, and his playfulness was on display when he promptly swapped his placard for Williams’.
Perhaps a tradition was born this weekend, though Pinson insists he isn’t in it to make extended media appearances.
“I just wanted to step up for my team. I don’t care about being [at a press conference],” Pinson said. “I just try to make everybody loose.”
Added Williams: “Theo was being Theo, and he does a great job of that and of helping our basketball team to a nice trip to Houston.”