A little less than three minutes remained in the first half between North Carolina and Florida State on Saturday when, during a timeout, Roy Williams turned to Theo Pinson and said something that Pinson couldn’t recall Williams ever saying before.
“Theo,” Pinson said later, doing his best impression of Williams, the UNC coach, “you’re the five.”
Translated from basketball parlance, Williams was telling Pinson – all 6-feet, 6-inches and 211 pounds of him – that he was now playing center, the position usually reserved for the biggest and the tallest, of which Pinson is neither.
Pinson smiled at the memory later, in the moments after the Tar Heels’ 96-83victory. It was a victory on Saturday at the Smith Center that will be remembered for a lot of things. Like, for instance, Pinson’s soaring, gliding dunk with about 5½ minutes remaining.
And Luke Maye’s 15 rebounds. And that three UNC players – Joel Berry (26 points), Justin Jackson (22) and Isaiah Hicks (22) – scored at least 20 points in the same game for the first time in about six years. Perhaps most of all it will be remembered for how UNC went small against one of the tallest teams in the country.
The Tar Heels (16-3, 4-1 ACC) did so, Williams said in the aftermath, “out of necessity.”
And indeed, fouls played a part. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, UNC’s only available traditional post players, endured foul trouble throughout on Saturday, and Meeks finished with four. The team’s other usual post player, Tony Bradley, missed the game due to a concussion.
Which all led to the scene Pinson described afterward – Williams telling him he was now “the five.”
“I was like, ‘All right, let’s go then,’ ” said Pinson, the junior who finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. “I take that as a challenge. And I don’t care about how big you are.
“And I told them before I went out, I said, ‘Ojo’s mine.’ ”
Ojo is Florida State center Michael Ojo. He is 7-1 and weighs more than 300 pounds.
“I went down there one time, and he came down there and put an elbow in my side,” Berry said. “And I was like, yeah, I don’t want nothing of that.”
Pinson did, though. He embraced it.
The No. 11 Tar Heels led by five during that timeout with less than three minutes remaining in the first half. When it ended and play resumed, Pinson shared a brief conversation with Jackson, the junior wing forward who was playing at power forward.
Jackson asked Pinson who he wanted to guard, and Pinson repeated himself.
“I was like, man, I’ve got Ojo,” Pinson said again. “And he was like, OK. You know Justin. He doesn’t want to talk.”
During those final frenetic few minutes, UNC’s lineup comprised entirely of perimeter-oriented players did well enough to build a nine-point halftime lead. It was the first time in 29 years, Williams said, that he’d ever used a lineup that didn’t include a post player.
Williams came close to using a similar lineup in the second half, with Hicks picking up his third foul with 16 minutes remaining and Meeks his fourth with 11½ minutes left. That left Maye, a reserve whose role has expanded considerably in his sophomore season, as UNC’s best option on the inside.
Put another way, Maye was UNC’s only real option on the interior – Pinson playing center notwithstanding. On paper, at least, it might have looked like a colossal mismatch: The No. 9 Seminoles (16-2, 4-1), with three regulars standing at least 6-10, going against a UNC lineup decimated by fouls and an injury, and one with the 6-8 Maye as its literal and figurative centerpiece in the middle.
And yet going small worked for a couple of reasons. For one, the Tar Heels became quicker, and their agility helped them create transition scoring points. Second, it forced the Seminoles to adjust, and forced them to try to match what UNC had going on the perimeter.
“When you think about Florida State’s team, they don’t really have a true post player, unless it’s Ojo,” Williams said. “... It’s hard for you to match up with them (with) post players, anyway. And so that was one thing.”
The other, according to Williams: “They didn’t have two low-post players that could beat up Justin or Theo inside.”
UNC played without both Hicks and Meeks for nearly 12 minutes. During those 12 minutes, the Tar Heels outscored the Seminoles 30-20 – the scoring advantage nearly comprising the 13-point margin of victory.
Forced to be creative due to circumstances, foul trouble and otherwise, Williams acknowledged that he used “some weird lineups” out there. He used a lot of lineups, too – 14 in the first half and 10, not including the one filled with walk-ons in the final seconds, during the second half.
The Tar Heels on three occasions during the first 10 minutes of the second half extended their lead to 11 points, only to watch the Seminoles come back. It was a three-point game with about eight minutes left, and UNC’s lead was four with less than six minutes remaining.
But then came Pinson’s dunk and not long after the Tar Heels scored six consecutive points to stretch their lead back out to 10 with 3½ minutes remaining. The surge brought the Smith Center crowd to its feet, the energy here matching what UNC’s smaller lineup seemed to provide throughout on Saturday.
Pinson called going small “fun.” Several of his teammates spoke of how it was a catalyst.
“When we have the smaller guys,” Berry said, “we’ve got to make up for that. So I think that’s why you guys when you see us having more energy, having more effort, flying around a little bit more, I think it’s just us trying to cover up for the lack of size that we have out there.”