Freshmen Pace Heels

ATLANTA – While Theo Pinson made his return late in No. 19 North Carolina’s 81-49 win over Georgia Tech on Tuesday, it was his classmates – Joel Berry and Justin Jackson - that sparked an explosive run early in building an 18-point halftime lead.

Now that the calendar has turned to March, the rookie label is worn and peeling off after four months of the grind that is the college basketball schedule. Neither Berry nor Jackson played much like freshmen at McCamish Pavilion as both attacked with confidence.

As a result, Tuesday’s game marked the first time all season that two freshmen were the only Tar Heels to score in double figures.

Berry had the hot hand early, setting career highs in the first half with 11 points and three 3-point field goals. His previous highs were eight points (four times) and one 3-pointer (eight times). The Apopka, Fla. product finished with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting in 20 minutes, and dished two assists against one turnover.

“I’ve been working after practice a lot on shooting, trying to get extra shots up so that when I get in the game my confidence will be up,” Berry told reporters after the game. “I’ve just been trying to get out there and play my game and try to do anything I can to help the team. That’s all I did today.”

Berry missed seven games in late January and February with a strained groin muscle and sat out the first Georgia Tech game on Feb. 21 due to illness. His return has strengthened UNC’s backcourt as he serves as an extra ball handler and allows Roy Williams to roll out a three point guard lineup when needed.

“Joel, ever since he’s come back from his injury, his minutes keep going up and up and you can tell his comfort level and his ability to just be Joel Berry is there,” junior guard Marcus Paige said. “All freshman point guards talk about the struggle of learning everything. It’s late in the year now. He’s comfortable with our offense and he’s got his body back feeling good, so he can be the Joel Berry we want him to be, which is aggressive, attacking and confident in his offensive game.”

Jackson also continued his aggressive play of late, taking shots with confidence and being active around the rim. He finished with 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting to go along with five rebounds (2 OR) and three assists in 29 minutes.

Jackson acknowledged in the postgame locker room that he was not as aggressive as he should have been earlier in the season.

“I was more shy, in a way, trying to get other people involved, which is a great thing, but for the team to win they need everybody to step up, me included,” Jackson said. “So these past couple of games I’ve really tried to just be more aggressive and try to make things happen. It’s worked out pretty well.”

Jackson has recently changed roles with J.P. Tokoto on the wing. While the two and three spots in UNC’s offense are basically interchangeable, Jackson is now playing the two, which requires him to drop back on defense if the point guard drives to the rim. That allows Tokoto to crash the boards on a more consistent basis.

And then there was Pinson, who told reporters on Saturday in Miami that the plan was play at Georgia Tech. That appeared to change on Monday when Williams indicated that Pinson (foot) had just returned to practice on Sunday and wasn’t expected to play in Atlanta.

With 2:31 to play, however, Pinson strolled to the scorer’s table and checked in for the first since Jan. 21.

“Coach asked me before I went, he said, ‘Do you think it will help Saturday if you got a couple of minutes?’” Pinson said. “And I was like, ‘It wouldn’t hurt.’ So I got in there. I told everybody I was going to get one up, that I was going to shoot one of them. I shot three, actually, but it was fun. I was just so glad to get back out there. It’s been a month.”

Pinson’s first shot, a baseline jumper off the right side, missed its mark, but he drained an 18-footer and then closed the game with a 3-pointer from the left wing.

UNC's freshman class combined for 33 points on 13-of-21 shooting.


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