CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It’s not uncommon for athletes to enter a sophomore slump after a productive rookie year. On Wednesday, No. 7 North Carolina’s trio of second-year players proved that’s not always the case. Point guard Joel Berry and wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson each scored in double figures in UNC’s 80-69 win over the Tigers, helping to offset the absence of Kennedy Meeks due to a knee injury and an off night by Brice Johnson (3 points, 1-of-8 shooting).
“Joel Berry’s improved, Justin Jackson’s improved, Theo Pinson’s improved,” Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said after the game. “They just have a lot of quality players.”
The sophomore trio shot efficiently, combining for a 53.1 percent shooting display on 17-of-32 shots.
Pinson was responsible for a large chunk of that efficiency, scoring 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting, including 3-of-3 from 3-point range.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a game where I made every shot,” Pinson said. “That’s a first.”
Jackson contributed 13 points and a pair of assists in his starting role. He was aggressive attacking the basket against the Tigers, both in the halfcourt and in transition.
“Last year, there were a lot of times where we kind of had to force things,” Jackson said. “I think whenever we move the ball and hit guys where they want the ball, it is so much easier for them to score.”
Berry directed the offense in scoring 16 points and dishing out four assists. He succeeded in pushing the tempo to get Clemson out of its preferred slow-it-down approach. Berry was also perfect from the free throw line (4-of-4), two of which ignited a critical second half run by the sophomores at the 6:59 mark.
Clemson cut a 16-point deficit to six points over a two-minute stretch with a 10-0 run. Berry ended the spurt by driving to the basket and drawing a foul, knocking down both free throws.
Following the second make, Pinson checked in for Johnson after his fourth foul. After a pair of Sidy Djitte free throws, Jackson found Pinson on the right wing for a 3-pointer to push the Tar Heel lead back to nine. Clemson turned the ball over on its next possession, and Jackson hit a floater off an inbounds set.
The sophomore trio combined for a 7-2 answer to Clemson’s last-gasp effort to end its 57-game losing streak at UNC.
Their performances played a critical role in Roy Williams’s decision to roll out a smaller lineup to speed up the Tigers and limit their offensive production.
“All of the guards, we know how each other plays a lot,” Jackson said. “So we played extremely well defensively together today.”
Pinson echoed that sentiment, highlighting the bond between his classmates.
“We get along so well off the court, I think on the court we just know where each other likes the ball, and when,” Pinson said. “We have confidence in each other that we know they’re going to make that shot or make that play.”
The improved play, especially when all three are on the court, bears the results of time spent honing their craft together in the offseason.
“We came in together,” Berry said. “Over the summer we spent a lot of hours in the gym with one another. I think that’s where it comes from.”