RALEIGH — For only the second time since early last season, senior Theo Pinson started for North Carolina. But he wasn’t at all happy about the reason.
Kenny Williams injured his right knee in practice Tuesday, and showed up the PNC Arena on Wednesday with a suit and crutches. After North Carolina’s second blowout of N.C. State, this time by a 97–73 count, Coach Roy Williams announced that Kenny Williams will have surgery next week. He’s out for 4 to 6 weeks and likely lost for the season.
“It definitely has been a long road, but I don’t want to start that way,” Pinson said. “We would really have liked to have Kenny out there.”
Before Pinson’s preseason injury, many expected him to be the starter at the two spot. But even when he returned, Pinson came off the bench … until Kenny Williams got hurt.
“When you come off the bench, you’ve got to feed off the energy and bring the energy,” said Pinson, who got his ninth career start. “I just wanted to come out there and not try to force anything because those guys played together basically all year. I just wanted to do my part and I think I did a good job of that.”
Pinson broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, had surgery and missed the first 16 games of the season. He then missed three games in January after turning his right ankle. Pinson’s second return to action has gone much more smoothly than the first one.
“The most uncomfortable I’ve been was the first two games back against N.C. State and Wake,” Pinson said. “I wasn’t completely uncomfortable, but not in the flow making stuff I usually make. But it felt great today, as you can see. Just have to keep it going.”
His mentality might change now that he’ll likely be a fixture in the starting lineup for the rest of the season, but he said that it’s important that he not change his game.
“I just have to step up,” Pinson said. “I’m willing to take the challenge. I can’t go out there and say, ‘all right, Kenny’s out, I have to be more aggressive.’ I just have to keep playing my game and that’s what I’m going to do.”
He turned in a vintage Pinson effort against the Wolfpack, playing a good overall game. He looked as close to 100 percent as he has all season, although stamina may have been an issue.
“I’m feeling great,” Pinson said. “I’ve just got to keep it going, keep going through treatment and staying healthy. I didn’t have any problems tonight, so it felt good.”
He played good defense while scored a season-high 12 points, and collected four assists and two rebounds in a season-high-tying 24 minutes. He did have an errant pass that quickly got him yanked out of the game in the second half. But he also served up
alley-oop passes to Isaiah Hicks and Luke Maye, who had a career-high 13 points.
Pinson aggressively drove to the basket and made some impressive twisting layups by using the glass several times.
“That’s what it’s there for. That square up will help you out a lot,” said Pinson, who took repeatedly took advantage of the Wolfpack’s lack of energy or cohesion on defense.
“Attack or be attacked,” Pinson said of the Tar Heels’ mentality in giving the Wolfpack its sixth consecutive loss. “That’s the bottom line of what we need to do every game. We understand that we got off to a good start [in the first State game]. It worked last time, so why not this time?”
Kennedy Meeks played as aggressively inside as he has all season, finishing with
17 points and eight rebounds as UNC outscored State 60–22 inside. He appreciated the element that Pinson brought on offense.
“Definitely attacking the basket, that was big,” Meeks said. “It kind of took the attention off of everybody else when he was going to the basket.”
Pinson was confident and showed plenty of flair with his ability to go to the rim.
“I just tried to lull them to sleep a little bit,” Pinson said. “The guys kept moving on the weak side, and it just gave me good driving lanes and I just wanted to finish for them.”
Justin Jackson, who scored 14 points, said that the Tar Heels knew that the driving lanes would be there.
“They played zone a lot last game,” Jackson said. “We knew if we got some ball rotations, we could drive on them. Theo did a great job of taking advantage of that.”
The Tar Heels will definitely feature a different backcourt look the rest of the season. They go from a 6–4 guard in Williams who is more of a catch-and-shoot player and has been skittish on offense at times, to a longer 6–6 Pinson, who can sink a jumper, make the terrific pass or drive by defenders and can hurt defenses in many ways.
“Theo is more of a guy who can penetrate and get to the lane,” said Joel Berry II, who made four 3-pointers and scored a game-high 18 points. “Theo’s getting better on the defensive end and Theo has the length.”
Defense is where Pinson will have to compensate most after losing Williams, who was UNC’s best defender. He did a good job Wednesday of not letting Maverick Rowan get comfortable with his perimeter shot.
“He has a wing span that can stop a guy like Maverick, who likes to pull up,” Berry said. “If somebody has a two guard who is pretty tall, Theo is able to either get a hand up on the shot or stay in front.”
Pinson will have to become that defensive stopper for the Tar Heels for the rest of the season. But, above all, he’ll have to stay healthy.