Senior moments carry red-hot UNC to sixth straight win

Joel Berry and Theo Pinson will get their proper “Senior Night” next week at the Smith Center.

The North Carolina seniors had an impromptu version on Wednesday at Syracuse. A less teary dress-rehearsal, if you will, for the home finale that awaits the decorated duo against Miami.

No tissues were needed for this one, just guts. Every time Syracuse made a move in the second half of Wednesday’s 78-74 win for the Tar Heels, either Berry or Pinson made a play.

Five times Syracuse either cut UNC’s lead down to three, and once tied it, and each time either Berry or Pinson scored on the next possession.

North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (2) drives to the basket against Syracuse’s Oshae Brissett (11) during the second half on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY. Robert Willett

“We understand this moment,” Pinson said

Comprehension comes with experience and Berry and Pinson have been in big moments in their career. They have made consecutive trips to the national title game, winning it in 2017 after losing it in heartbreaking fashion in 2016.

The “been there, done that” attitude of their seniors has helped the Tar Heels this season, especially after a three-game losing streak to end January and a 5-5 ACC start.

After six straight ACC wins, that seems like a long time ago.

“It’s just funny how everybody was writing us off,” Pinson said. “But we understand that we were playing terrible.”

North Carolina coach Roy Williams huddles with his players during the closing minutes against Syracuse on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY. Robert Willett

Pinson injured his shoulder in UNC’s last loss, Jan. 30 at Clemson. He had only four points in the loss at Virginia Tech on Jan. 22. He has has averaged 17.2 points per game over the past four games.

Pinson figured he would be in for a big game in the middle of Syracuse’s zone. The 6-6 senior from Greensboro had a career-high 23 points, to go with seven assists, six rebounds and three steals.

He finished 9-of-12 from the floor and made two 3-pointers in the same game for the first time all season.

“He went up to shoot two 3s and the crowd didn’t go (gasp) and so he made them,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “He likes to shoot 3s better on the road I guess.”

North Carolina’s Theo Pinson (1) goes up for two of his career-high 23 points in a 78-74 win at Syracuse. Robert Willett

Williams showed the team clips of UNC’s last win at the Carrier Dome, in 2016, when big man Brice Johnson had a career-high eight assists.

“Anytime you work in that middle, it’s basically pick your poison,” Pinson said. “I had either a dump-down or a 3-pointer in the corner. I just tried to make the right play every time.”

He did almost every time. And if Pinson wasn’t there, then Berry was. The 6-foot senior guard from Apopka, Fla. scored 18 points, including the final four of the game.

Berry was kicking himself after he missed a 3-pointer with the game tied at 74 with 2 minutes left. He got a steal and layup the next time he got his hands on the ball.

After Syracuse’s Frank Howard missed a 3 with 17 seconds left, Pinson grabbed the rebound and found Berry, who was fouled.

Before Berry got to the foul line, with 12.5 seconds left and a 76-74 lead, Williams had a request.

“You missed 3, how about making the free throws and let’s get out of town?” Williams said to Berry.

His senior guard obliged. It was the third time in three ACC wins (vs. Wake Forest, at Notre Dame) that Berry had provided the game-deciding points in the final minute.

No big deal, Berry said, that’s what seniors are supposed to do.

“It’s just leadership and knowing these situations,” Berry said. “That’s all it is.”

And because of their seniors, the Tar Heels have won six straight and are playing their best basketball when it matters most.

Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio