NEW YORK — When an alley-oop pass swishes in for a 3-pointer, you know it’s your day.
North Carolina had a very bad day in January when Miami’s zone defense frustrated a team without Theo Pinson that had little success inside.
The Tar Heels were befuddled. The only befuddled look from them Thursday was on Pinson’s face when his pass (or would you call it a shot?) went in from outside the arc.
No. 6 Carolina rolled into the ACC Tournament semifinals with a 78–53 victory over Miami to avenge a 15-point regular-season loss. Now the Tar Heels face Duke in Friday’s semifinals after the teams split the regular-season meetings, trying to end a five-game ACC Tournament losing streak against the Blue Devils.
“The ball was traveling toward the basket and I was like, that might go in. And once that went in, I was like ‘wow,’ ” said Pinson of the alley-oop pass that was intended for Tony Bradley but errantly found the basket. “Apparently I was behind the line. I didn’t realize what was going on. I blacked out for a second. It was crazy.”
Perhaps another pass was in order later in the second half when Pinson shot an air ball on a 3-point attempt.
“I told Coach that was the basketball gods telling me you got the lucky one, you’ve got to suffer for that one,” Pinson said.
But there wasn’t all that much suffering from UNC despite becoming the first No. 1 seed in ACC Tournament history to face a team with a winning league record in a quarterfinal game. And one that beat them 77–62 in the only regular-season meeting.
In that game, the Hurricanes’ zone defense prevented drives to the basket. UNC got little inside and played uninspired defense. With the exception of the last minute of the first half, when Miami went on a 7–0 run, the Tar Heels turned that all around Thursday in Brooklyn.
“If you look back at the game in January, we just played horrible,” said Berry, who scored 11 points and had five assists, the most since the win at N.C. State. “Shot the ball horrible. They came out and attacked us and we didn’t respond at all. So today, we just tried to go out from the jump and one of our things on our scouting report was attack or be attacked, and I think we did a good job of attacking them.”
Part of what made that attacking offense work was the Tar Heels’ big men being much more active.
“Our bigs moved a lot better in the middle of the paint,” Justin Jackson said, comparing this game to the loss at Miami. “Whenever you get movement in that zone, it frees up basically everybody and whenever we got in there, Isaiah was great for us inside.”
Tony Bradley, who had six points, said that the team saw a lot of video from the first Miami game and the coaches made a point about what they didn’t see.
“We weren’t moving at all in the zone, just standing there, so that made it easy for a defender to guard us,” Bradley said. “We watched a lot of film, and I feel like we came in ready to play.”
Nobody was more ready than Isaiah Hicks. He scored 19 points to lead UNC scoring for the fourth time this season and 26th time in his career. Also big for him is that he only committed one foul, which allowed him to play 25 minutes.
It seems that the Alfred E. Neuman approach — What, me worry? — is paying off for Hicks.
“I’d rather be on the floor not worrying about nothing, just playing. Just to have one foul in the game just allowed me to play, not worrying about nothing,” said Hicks, who has 40 points in his last two games, the most since he had 22 against Florida State and 20 vs. Syracuse in consecutive mid-January games.
For the 26th time in his career, he made all of his free throws. But against Miami, he attempted nine. The most he previously had attempted on a perfect three-throw night was six at Florida State in 2016.
“Just shooting a lot of free throws and just focusing on the process, not worrying about making it or missing,” Hicks.
Berry had a lot fewer worries as the game went on because of Hicks’ success inside.
“Isaiah was able to get a lot of shots inside that zone and it was because they were trying to focus on me and Justin out on the 3-point line,” Berry said. “The middle was wide open and that’s why Isaiah was able to get some production out there from the middle.”
Three of Hicks’ five field goals were dunks, giving him 42 on the season, and they came in a variety of ways. One came in transition off a Pinson pass and another one off of a pass from Berry in the half-court offense.
Berry says that the inside production makes the Tar Heels so much tougher to defend. Kennedy Meeks added 10 points and seven rebounds.
“That’s our offense,” Berry said. “We want to get the ball inside, get their big men in foul trouble to where when they do attack they don’t have a rim protector down there. If we can get the ball down to Isaiah, Kennedy and Tony and let them work, that opens up not only the drives but the 3-point line as well because they might have to consider double-teaming.”
Particularly in the second half, UNC was able to open up the transition game to create a lot of easy baskets.
“Our bigs did a good job of sprinting down the court and our wings did a great job as well,” Berry said. “When I got the ball, I just tried to change sides of the court to mess with them a little bit, and we got a couple of easy baskets without having to go against a set defense. If we can create a turnover and get a rebound and get out on the run and put teams in bad situations, that’s what we want to do.”
With offensive threats inside and outside like Carolina had on Thursday, it isn’t going to be easy for any team to stop the Tar Heels. But on Friday, they face a Duke team that showed in Durham that it can do it.