Luke DeCock

Theo being Theo has been a recipe for UNC success

North Carolina’s Theo Pinson (1) and coach Roy Williams celebrate following a basket by walk-on player Kane Ma (14) with :24 seconds to to play against Georgia Tech on Saturday, January 20, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Theo Pinson (1) and coach Roy Williams celebrate following a basket by walk-on player Kane Ma (14) with :24 seconds to to play against Georgia Tech on Saturday, January 20, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

When Theo Pinson loaded up for a 3-pointer from the corner, the students in the Smith Center responded with a hushed but very audible, “noooooo.” Everyone heard it, from Pinson to his teammates on the bench.

“I heard it when I let it go,” Pinson said. “But I knew when it left my hand it was cash anyway.”

It was: only Pinson’s fifth successful attempt of the season. It’s not something North Carolina expects from Pinson, nor is it what he does best, which is just about everything else.

Saturday was a very Pinson game, his third straight in double figures with 11 points, but with 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals as well. He described his mantra as “I just gotta keep being Theo” after Tuesday’s win over Clemson, and he continued to be Theo in Saturday’s 80-66 win over Georgia Tech.

At this point in Pinson’s career, everyone knows as well as he does what he is and what he isn’t. As the groans from the crowd reinforced, he’s a rarity in the modern game, especially at North Carolina: a perimeter player who doesn’t shoot that well. But because he does everything else so well, it doesn’t really matter.

Especially as the nominal power forward in North Carolina’s small lineup – and concerns over that lineup’s rebounding ability appear to have abated – Pinson’s versatility is invaluable. He can guard bigger players, which allows the Tar Heels to switch pretty much every screen. He’s smart enough to know his strengths and weaknesses, big enough to rebound effectively and quick enough to get to the rim – especially when lumbering forwards are forced to guard him.

“Ever since that two-game losing streak, it’s been attack mode, attack mode,” Pinson said. “If I do that, good things happen. Me attacking doesn’t mean I have to score the ball. Me attacking just means going out there and making plays, and that’s what I do best. When I do that, we’re a really good team.”

And that goes beyond his established role as North Carolina’s clown prince or his podium-crashing antics or any of the other things that make Roy Williams roll his eyes. Games like this one make all of that worth it.

“Theo’s really something,” Williams said, and he meant it in an entirely positive way.

Pinson’s biggest rival for attention on the court is occasionally referee Ted Valentine, who gained notoriety and lost ACC and Big Ten assignments after he turned his back on Joel Berry when the North Carolina guard tried to protest a non-call during the Tar Heels’ loss in Tallahassee 17 days ago.

This was Valentine’s first North Carolina game since, and he sought out Berry on the court during warmups for a cordial conversation. Berry, who understood why the incident got so much attention, didn’t think it was a big deal and accepted Valentine’s apology. No hard feelings.

“You can have a learning experience at any age,” Berry said.

Valentine even defused a potentially explosive late-game incident when Georgia Tech’s Jose Alvarado fouled Berry from behind on his way to the basket, then stepped over the fallen Berry in an act of playground disrespect. Valentine assessed a technical foul after reviewing the play and mollified Tech coach Josh Pastner with his explanation.

It was Valentine at his best, not his flamboyant worst, the kind of even-handed veteran officiating that earned him a trip to the Final Four last year.

This was also Pinson at his best, on a day when the Tar Heels weren’t entirely at their best. Pinson had one glaring turnover, but he wasn’t alone in that respect. Nor was he alone in hearing student trepidation at his shot selection. Berry heard the fans’ displeasure when Pinson took his 3 … and later, when Berry himself kept shooting from outside. He started 1-for-2. He finished 1-for-8.

“Shoot, not only did it happen on his, they started doing it to me,” Berry said. “I understand how it feels.”

But Berry had to keep shooting. That’s what he does. And the Tar Heels need Berry to keep being Berry, just as they need Theo to keep being Theo.

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

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