If there was a one play, one moment, that defined North Carolina’s 96-83 victory against Florida State on Saturday, it might have happened with less than four minutes to play, with the Tar Heels trying to figure out the Seminoles’ defense, the shot clock winding down.
Joel Berry, the junior point guard, had the ball in his hands, dribbling, trying to find an opening. The shot clock showed four seconds, and then three, when Berry began his move inside, to where the Tar Heels were supposed to be at a significant disadvantage.
Jonathan Isaac, the Seminoles’ 6-foot-10 freshman, was waiting down there, ready to send an errant layup attempt back from where it came. Berry went up, looking not entirely certain that it was the best of ideas, and somehow he managed to get a shot attempt up and over Isaac.
And somehow that attempt managed to go in. It gave the Tar Heels, who’d been trying for a while to pull away, an eight-point lead, and it gave the people at the Smith Center good reason to stand and erupt in a loud ovation, which they did.
Berry’s shot – he later said he intentionally drove into Isaac’s body, removing Isaac’s ability to block it – came in the middle of a quick 6-0 run in which the Tar Heels extended a four-point lead to 10 with about 3½ minutes remaining.
It was all but over then, amid a delirious scene at the Smith Center, where a full-house crowd of 21,750 spent most of the final minutes screaming in approval. Indeed, this was one of those games that made your ears hurt.
Berry led the Tar Heels with 26 points, and Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, and Justin Jackson, a junior, both finished with 22. It was the first time that three UNC players scored at least 20 points since the 2011 NCAA tournament.
The real story, though, is that UNC overcame Florida State’s size advantage by successfully going small for several long stretches – some of it attributable to foul trouble. The Tar Heels were without 6-11 forward Tony Bradley, who was out with a concussion.
Both Hicks and Meeks, UNC’s only remaining traditional post players, found themselves in foul trouble in the second half, too. And so it was a “necessity” to use a smaller lineup, UNC coach Roy Williams said. At one point late in the first half that lineup included no post players – a first for Williams, he said.
With UNC running out of bodies down low, it was especially reliant on Luke Maye, the 6-8 sophomore who came off the bench and finished with 15 rebounds, five of them on offense. The Tar Heels victory will be remembered for Maye’s performance.
But it will also be remembered for Theo Pinson’s dunk with a little less than six minutes remaining – one that gave UNC a six-point lead when it was trying to pull away – and for Berry’s difficult shot near the end of the shot clock a few moments later. The victory was UNC’s first against a top-10 team this season.
“It was a big-time game,” Williams said. “It was the kind of game that you like to be involved in.”