For one night, you could see the relief in the team’s eyes.
Roy Williams said it felt better than the last three games, all losses. Joel Berry said it was time to get in gear. Theo Pinson said the team needed it.
Sure, the Tar Heels played Pittsburgh — a team that entered the game 0-10 in the ACC, was ranked No. 180 in RPI and had so much roster turnover this year that it started four freshmen and only had one player (Jonathan Milligan) from when UNC graduate transfer Cameron Johnson played there just a season ago.
But you can only play who they put in front of you. And with Saturday's 96-65 win, the No. 19 Tar Heels (17-7, 6-5 ACC) showed us all just how dangerous they can be when things are clicking.
“Losing three games is not acceptable, especially at this university,” Luke Maye said. “We needed a win.”
So how did it happen?
UNC had several players turn it up after mediocre performances of late. Maye had four points in Tuesday's loss against Clemson, but he turned in a 26-point, eight-rebound and five-assist night against the Panthers to lead the Tar Heels, who has six players in double figures. He’s averaging 25.5 points a game coming off games where he scored in single digits this year.
Kenny Williams also showed up big after ghosting the past week and a half, scoring more against Pitt than he did in his last three games combined. His 15 points were the most since the Tar Heels played Clemson at home on Jan. 16, and his three three-pointers were the most since the loss at Virginia on Jan. 6.
“I hadn’t seen Kenny Williams in a couple of weeks,” Roy Williams said. “I congratulated him for showing up.”
The three-point defense woes? For a bit in the first half, it looked like they were still there, as Pitt started the game 5-for-6 from downtown. After allowing N.C. and Clemson to each shoot 15-for-30 from three in consecutive games, it felt like another defensive letdown.
But if you looked a little closer, the scheme had just slightly changed. Tar Heels were sticking with their man, and more of those three-pointers were contested. What changed?
“No strong side help,” Pinson said. “We cut that down and cut down some of the threes.”
UNC let Pitt drive one on one, letting Panther ball-handlers continue to use their strong side dribble and allowing those guarding perimeter players to stay home and prevent kick-outs.
The result? A regression to the mean. Pitt shot 2-for-16 from behind the arc in the second half, finishing the game 10-for-30: a result that the Tar Heels can work with when they drill 11 triples of their own.
The under-the-radar problem of inefficient offensive rebounding the past few games? The small lineup is finally figuring it out.
Against Clemson and N.C. State, UNC was outscored 44-28 in second chance points. Against the Panthers, the Tar Heels won the battle, 22-8, putting up 16 offensive rebounds to Pitt’s 17 defensive rebounds.
“You can understand last year why they were a great offensive rebounding team (with Kennedy) Meeks and all those big cats that they had in there,” said Kevin Stallings, Pitt’s head coach. “They really shouldn’t be a great offensive rebounding team this year, and they are a great offensive rebounding team. It’s coaching.”
And those were just the big-picture points. A lot of little things went right, if not spectacular, for the Tar Heels.
Theo Pinson’s 13-rebound, eight-assist night was capped off with a tomahawk putback bucket for his only two points. Multiple hustle plays kept possessions alive and generated turnovers (11 fast break points to Pitt’s zero). Freshmen big men Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks combined for 20 points off the bench, and UNC had 29 assists on 36 field goals.
Yes, it was Pitt, a team with no shot of making the NCAA tournament, ranked as the 207th best team in Division I by Ken Pomeroy and tied for the NCAA lead with 15 different starting lineups this season.
And yes, the Tar Heels have several big tests ahead. An angry Duke team, coming off a loss to St. John’s on Saturday, travels to Chapel Hill on Thursday. The final gauntlet includes N.C. State, Duke and Louisville on the road as well as home tilts with Miami and Notre Dame.
After Saturday's win, the urgency of UNC's final home stretch begins. And it's not lost on Roy Williams.
“They are only hearing it from us every 13 seconds," he said. “If they don’t got it by now, we need to start speaking a different language.”
But for one night, the future didn’t matter. In six months, six weeks or even six days from now, this game might just be another great Carolina performance amid an up-and-down season. But it could be the spark that lights the fire that propels this team to another run.
And that hope is alive, if not just for one night.