Luke DeCock

For UNC, one dunk changed a game. For Theo Pinson, it might change a season – DeCock

The question, as Theo Pinson started his run-up in front of the North Carolina bench, was whether he could get to the rim at all. There was no doubt in his mind – he said later that if he had second thoughts, he would have flipped the ball over and laid it in – but there was a surplus of doubt in so many other minds, from the crowd that involuntarily inhaled in unison to his surprised teammates.

Pinson took a big step from left foot to right foot as he crossed the 3-point line, landing hard on that right foot, even with the ACC logo, a few feet outside the paint – the right foot that he broke in preseason, that kept him on the bench in a suit for two months and without a bucket in two-plus games – then planted his left foot on the edge of the lane and launched himself toward the basket, which wasn’t exactly nearby.

At which point just about everyone wondered, could he get there?

“I didn’t think so,” teammate Joel Berry said. “I looked at the rim and saw where he was taking off ...”

Pinson seemed to hang in the air. He cocked his right arm over his head, his body fully extended. Then the Smith Center exhaled, in an explosion of awe and disbelief, as Pinson threw the ball through the rim, now shooting 1-for-10 on the season.

And with that, this game between ACC title hopefuls, one played at a level befitting the stakes, was over. North Carolina led Florida State by four when Pinson took off. By the time he landed in a shockwave of decibels, the Tar Heels had initiated a 16-7 run that would put the game away, on their way to a 96-83 win Saturday.

Pinson’s dunk was, and this is not an adjective used flippantly, Jordanesque in its audacity, hang time and force.

Just ask the judges.

Berry gave it a 10: “It wasn’t the flashiest windmill or anything, but he took off from pretty far out and there was someone under there. I was hoping the guy contested it, so he could dunk on him, but he saw Theo and how hard he was going.”

Isaiah Hicks gave it a 10: “That one, because I was surprised he did it, I would give him a 10 on that one.”

Justin Jackson gave it a … 12? “And if you go off the crowd reaction, I’d give it about a 15 out of 10.”

If his teammates were surprisingly impressed, it’s because they hadn’t seen this from Pinson this season, even in practice. His dunks, to this point, had been the standard-issue, pregame warm-up, two-handed vertical flushes.

But as he waited on that first basket, something built up inside him. When he got past Jonathan Isaac, Florida State’s star freshman, on the right wing, and saw Xavier Rathan-Mayes sticking to Brandon Robinson in the right corner, Pinson turned toward the basket. Rathan-Mayes was late to help. Dwayne Bacon was under the basket, but observed Pinson achieve exit velocity and got out of the way, discretion and valor and all that.

“I was like, take off,” Pinson said. “Don’t lay it up. Take off. I put a lot into it, definitely.”

It was going to take something special to beat Florida State, still every bit the ACC contender the Tar Heels are. There were any number of things North Carolina could point to, from the fired-up crowd to the small lineup that flummoxed the Seminoles – with Pinson at one point guarding the gargantuan Michael Ojo, 7 inches and 93 pounds bigger – to Luke Maye’s rebounding and home-run passes.

Still, the Seminoles had been hanging in there, within a possession or two for most of the second half, before Pinson’s dunk. No single factor had a bigger impact on the victory than the psychological damage Pinson inflicted, and nothing meant more to his teammates, who understood his journey.

“I’m just glad I could come through for my teammates,” Pinson said. “It was real fun just seeing everybody in the locker room happy for me, knowing what I went through.”

Can one dunk change a game? It happens all the time. It did Saturday.

Can one dunk change a season? Maybe not for a team, but it might for one player. It might for Theo Pinson.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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