Finding an Identity

They strolled down the Smith Center court, North Carolina's five starters, heading to the free-throw line to put the finishing touches on Tuesday's 87-79 win over Clemson.

Luke Maye led the brigade, five stitches holding the skin on the right side of his nose, two blocks and a steal to his credit on the previous possession. Behind him was Theo Pinson, the pending free-throw shooter, filling the box score in every which way — except, of course, for three-pointers made.

No, that was reserved for the other three starters: Cameron Johnson (six threes), Joel Berry (four) and Kenny Williams (two). The former two trailed behind, while Williams raced down the court past Maye, arm winding like he was bowling a strike. The Tar Heels (15-4, 4-2 ACC) had exorcised Clemson's dreams of snapping its 59-game losing streak in Chapel Hill, and the Tigers (15-3, 4-2 ACC) could only watch as the pins dropped yet again.

"Anything as historic as a streak like that is pretty impressive," Johnson said. "You don't want to be the ones to ruin it."

It was UNC's third consecutive win after Roy Williams — known for his affinity for traditional lineups — benched forward Garrison Brooks in favor of Johnson, the sweet-shooting transfer from Pittsburgh. That left the Tar Heels with their fans' dream and their coach's nightmare: a small-ball lineup.

Now, three games into Williams' grand experiment, North Carolina has found an identity — at least in rotation, if not in style.

 Joel Berry (2) and Theo Pinson (1) are the facilitators of UNC's go-to lineup.

Joel Berry (2) and Theo Pinson (1) are the facilitators of UNC's go-to lineup.

All five starters scored in double figures in Tuesday's win, the first time that's happened all season. Those five — Berry, Williams, Johnson, Pinson and Maye — combined for 82 percent of the Tar Heels' total minutes. They function as UNC's starting lineup, its crunch-time lineup and the anchor in between.

Roy Williams said the small lineup stayed in favor because of Clemson's versatility, but at this point, it seems foolish to abandon it. North Carolina's second-half shooting percentage (65 percent) was its second-best in a half all year and its best in ACC play. Its 15 made threes were the eighth-most in school history.

"I'm sure Coach is gonna want to keep going inside," Kenny Williams said. "But our starting lineup is four guards that can all shoot the ball. So it's always going to gravitate that way toward the outside."

It was Williams who led the charge in the first half, scoring 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting. Three Tar Heels — Williams, Johnson and Brandon Robinson — hit multiple threes in the opening period, while 16 of UNC's remaining 20 points came in the paint or at the free-throw line. Gabe Devoe, a North Carolina native, led Clemson's struggling offense with 11 points, but the Tar Heels mounted a 15-point lead behind 12 assists on 13 made baskets.

Two minutes before halftime, Maye fell victim to an errant elbow from Williams, his close friend and roommate. He lay on the Smith Center, blood pouring from his nose, before heading through the tunnel for a concussion evaluation and a set of stitches. UNC was down its only reliable big man.

 Luke Maye left the game in the first half to get his nose stitched. He came back and scored nine points in the second half.

Luke Maye left the game in the first half to get his nose stitched. He came back and scored nine points in the second half.

"I was just hoping it wasn't broken," said Kenny Williams, who scored a team-high 12 points in the first half. "And the way he was holding his face, it kind of looked worse than it was."

It was just a cut, the team announced, and Maye was back on the court early in the second half. But Clemson had already begun its assault. After missing their first shot of the second half, the Tigers hit each of their next 15 attempts, something even a veteran coach such as Roy Williams said he had never seen.

"I think both teams were trying to guard," he said. "It just didn't look like it on our parts."

So, with Maye struggling and the freshmen forwards nearly silent, UNC's shooters went to work. After combining for three triples in his previous four games, Johnson hit three in as many attempts to start the second half, pushing North Carolina's lead to 17 points with 17 minutes to go.

But the Tigers kept coming, hitting eight second-half threes and scoring 16 points in the paint. The Tar Heels went cold without easy buckets inside, making just four field goals in the next nine minutes — all threes from Berry, who has seemingly willed this team through ACC play.

 Joel Berry (2) drives and draws a foul for two of his 14 points in the second half, all in an eight-minute span.

Joel Berry (2) drives and draws a foul for two of his 14 points in the second half, all in an eight-minute span.

With 6:17 left, Clemson cut it to two for the third time. The historic streak was in doubt.

And then, it wasn't. Johnson buried his sixth shot from deep — tying the career high he set as a Smith Center visitor last season — and Maye added his lone triple moments later to push the lead to eight. Pinson's six free throws down the stretch sealed the deal.

So, in the end, the Tar Heels survived Clemson's furious rally with 15 threes and 20 free throws, finishing with 14 points in the paint and seven on the fast break. And the team's five core contributors were behind it all.

What is this team's identity, anyway?

"We just need to get easier baskets inside," Maye said. "But when we're shooting it like we did, it's really fun to play like that."

Inside, outside — it doesn't matter. It's a lineup that pays dividends, and Roy Williams would be wise to reap the rewards.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Gabi Palacio