Luke DeCock

DeCock: UNC’s ‘Swiss Army knife’ making the cut

North Carolina coach Roy Williams' comments after UNC's victory over NC State

VIDEO: North Carolina head basketball coach Roy Williams talks about the Tar Heels' 80-68 victory over the NC State Wolfpack at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016.
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VIDEO: North Carolina head basketball coach Roy Williams talks about the Tar Heels' 80-68 victory over the NC State Wolfpack at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016.

For much of his two seasons at North Carolina, Theo Pinson looked like a player in search of a role. At the end of his sophomore year, he has figured it out. He has a role, he just never knows what it will be.

Wednesday, that meant coming off the bench to stop N.C. State’s Cat Barber when no one else could. On other nights, it’s been as a passer who keeps the offense running smoothly or just providing energy, something the lanky, loose-limbed Pinson does almost accidentally as he bounces around the court.

It’s never the same thing twice. But for perhaps the first time at North Carolina, the 6-foot-6 swingman from Greensboro is starting to look comfortable with that.

“They just tell me all the time, ‘Theo, go play basketball. We know what you can do, so just go do it,’” Pinson said.

There will be better games in this rivalry than North Carolina’s 80-68 win Wednesday. There always have been. There will be again, maybe even in Washington, if N.C. State can figure out a way to stay alive at the ACC tournament until North Carolina shows up. But this was not a classic, even if it started out that way.

The first 15 minutes were spectacular: Barber was unstoppable, at least until Pinson took over defensive duties; then the Tar Heels were a wrecking ball, going from down 13 to up five in less than six minutes after putting out a small lineup the Wolfpack couldn’t handle. Pinson’s length in particular seemed to bother Barber, who missed six straight shots to finish out the half after starting 7-for-9.

“A little different matchup for him,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried acknowledged.

That was it for N.C. State, which was never able to regain any traction. Barber finished with 32 points, but a quiet 32, if there is such a thing. Or more accurately, a quiet final 16. The first 16 were insane, drives and stepback jumpers and pull-up 3s. Barber torched both Joel Berry and Nate Britt – now twice a video-clip casualty, with Barber sending him stumbling almost as badly as Maryland’s Melo Trimble did – before Pinson stopped the bleeding.

Pinson’s line was quiet – seven points, three rebounds, two assists – but his defense turned the game around. This after he reached double figures for only the sixth time this season against Miami, or had six assists in the win over Pittsburgh ago. He began the season as a starter but things never seemed to click. It’s taken him until now to figure out this new role, one defined on a night-to-night basis.

“He’s a player who does a lot of things well,” North Carolina’s Marcus Paige said. “He doesn’t do one particular thing great but he does a lot of things well. When he comes in a game his contribution could be anywhere from the backboards to guarding the best player or having six or seven assists or knocking down a couple shots. He’s like our Swiss Army knife.”

This is an important development for North Carolina, almost as important as fellow sophomore Justin Jackson enjoying the same kind of late-season surge he did as a freshman. A team that shoots as erratically as North Carolina will need to make up for that in other areas to engineer the kind of NCAA tournament run the Tar Heels are expected to make.

Pinson is showing he’s capable of filling some critical gaps, game-saving gaps. Barber was on pace for 80 against Berry and Britt before Pinson finally shut him down.

Those questions will be different in March, unique and unexpected, but Pinson is starting to look like the kind of player who can answer them for the Tar Heels, no matter what they are.

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