COLUMN: Commence the vengeance tour for UNC

BROOKLYN  From the moment this year's ACC Tournament bracket was set, North Carolina's path to vengeance was clear.

First, dispatch No. 11 seed Syracuse in a second-round game the Tar Heels were wildly overqualified for. Then, sink No. 3 Miami in a rematch of a sour senior night. Then, barring an upset, take aim at No. 2 Duke in the semifinals for the second straight year, just six days removed from a collapse in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Thursday's game deviated from the script a bit, with UNC's offense frozen for the first seven minutes in Brooklyn. But North Carolina eventually settled in and avenged its previous loss with an 82-65 win over the Hurricanes, setting up Friday's storybook clash with the Blue Devils.

 Roy Williams (left) hadn't forgotten about UNC's gut-wrenching loss to Miami in senior night. Neither had Theo Pinson (right), who scored 25 points to lead the Tar Heels to an ACC Tournament semifinal rematch with Duke. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Roy Williams (left) hadn't forgotten about UNC's gut-wrenching loss to Miami in senior night. Neither had Theo Pinson (right), who scored 25 points to lead the Tar Heels to an ACC Tournament semifinal rematch with Duke. | Photo by Caleb Jones

"For us, it was a little more revenge," head coach Roy Williams said. "And I even used the word redeem."

"Redemption" was notably the buzzword for the Tar Heels (24-9, 11-7 ACC) in their NCAA championship run last season. And, no, there's no bigger ill to rectify than Kris Jenkins' heartbreaker in the 2016 title game.

But seeking vengeance for Ja'Quan Newton's eerily similar buzzer-beater, which secured Miami's 91-88 win in UNC's home finale, is a good start.

"We didn't like what they did on senior night ..." Cam Johnson said. "We knew today we just had to come out with a little but more of an edge."

The Tar Heels did just the opposite, at least at first. After a defensive masterclass against the Orange on Wednesday, the offense couldn't find its footing against the Hurricanes (22-9, 11-7 ACC) in Thursday's opening minutes — missing its first 13 shots in a seven-minute scoreless stretch to fall down, 14-0, with 12:58 left in the half.

It couldn't have been further from the quarterfinals a year ago, when UNC blitzed Miami in the first half and took a 12-point lead in an eventual 25-point win. This time around, it was the Tar Heels who were succumbing to the early pressure.

 Cam Johnson (13) said UNC wanted to come out in Thursday's ACC Tournament semifinal against Miami with an edge. But early on, it looked as if the Tar Heels were about to fall off one. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Cam Johnson (13) said UNC wanted to come out in Thursday's ACC Tournament semifinal against Miami with an edge. But early on, it looked as if the Tar Heels were about to fall off one. | Photo by Caleb Jones

"We were a little antsy about the game," said Theo Pinson, who finished with a game-high 25 points alongside 11 rebounds and three assists. "And they just didn't fall for us."

Williams, as he's wont to do when his team disappoints, sent his players a message — pulling all five starters at the 13:34 mark. Give the five reserves a chance, he told them, and you'll go back in if they falter.

Two possessions later, Seventh drove to the hole for a three-point play, sparking a 7-0 spurt and eventual 32-17 run to close the half.

"From then on, we started attacking the basket," said Joel Berry, who scored nine of his 11 points in the second half. "Once we got over that slow start, things started going our way."

The Tar Heels actually took a lead into halftime after Johnson's half-court heave at the buzzer merited three free-throw attempts. And after trading leads through the first 10 minutes, North Carolina closed the half on a 32-15 run — including a 13-0 stretch over the final four minutes — to leave no doubt the second time around.

 Seventh Woods (0) only made one shot in UNC's win over Miami in Thursday's ACC Tournament semifinal. But it was a big one, scoring the first points of the game and digging the Tar Heels out of offensive futility. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Seventh Woods (0) only made one shot in UNC's win over Miami in Thursday's ACC Tournament semifinal. But it was a big one, scoring the first points of the game and digging the Tar Heels out of offensive futility. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Much of that was thanks to Pinson, whose final home game was marred by Newton's game-winner in Chapel Hill. He scored half of UNC's final 16 points, including a crucial three-pointer from the right corner and a thunderous two-handed dunk to effectively seal the Tar Heels' vengeance bid.

But it was a collective effort from the defending champions — from the reserves in the first half to the seniors in the second — to stay alive in the ACC Tournament and even the score against the surging Hurricanes.

"It's not just about the five guys that (are) starting ..." Berry said. "It's going to take a team effort to be the team that we want to be."

Yes, this win means more for the Tar Heels' tournament survival than it does for a non-existent rivalry with Miami. But the players remember.

Williams hasn't forgotten the pain he felt watching his team lose in excruciating fashion just nine days before Thursday's win. Berry hasn't forgotten the tears he shed after Newton made a lifetime memory on Berry's night of remembrance. And his teammates haven't forgotten the missed opportunity to send their seniors leaders out right.

 Joel Berry (2) had his senior night spoiled by Miami on a buzzer-beating three from halfcourt. In Thursday's ACC Tournament quarterfinal, the UNC senior got his revenge. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Joel Berry (2) had his senior night spoiled by Miami on a buzzer-beating three from halfcourt. In Thursday's ACC Tournament quarterfinal, the UNC senior got his revenge. | Photo by Caleb Jones

And, after all, these are all maniacal competitors. And nothing feels better than retribution.

"It's easy for us to say, 'Oh, we're not worried about it,'" Kenny Williams said. "But we lost. And everybody's competitive. Human nature, you want to get somebody back ...

"If you lose to somebody before, it always feels better when you come in here and settle it."

North Carolina did so on Thursday, but the vengeance tour is far from over. Just like in last year's ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, a quarterfinal win over Miami is only the appetizer for a rubber match with Duke, which beat UNC in a statement rivalry win less than a week ago.

It was the Blue Devils who ended the Tar Heels' conference tournament title hopes last year, 364 days before Friday's rematch. North Carolina built a 13-point lead in that game before Duke stormed back for a 10-point win.

"We had that game," Berry said. "We came out in the first half and we jumped on them. Second half, they just got going. And once they got going, it was just hard to stop them."

 Joel Berry (2) says the Tar Heels are trying not to focus on seeking vengeance or getting lost in emotion. But the ACC Tournament serves as the perfect opportunity for UNC to right wrongs — from Thursday's win over Miami to Friday's matchup with Duke. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Joel Berry (2) says the Tar Heels are trying not to focus on seeking vengeance or getting lost in emotion. But the ACC Tournament serves as the perfect opportunity for UNC to right wrongs — from Thursday's win over Miami to Friday's matchup with Duke. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Sound familiar? It's uncanny, really, given that UNC built a 13-point lead in its 10-point loss in Durham on Sunday. Berry remembers both games well — how could he forget sitting on the bench with four fouls for much of the former and scoring just six points in the latter?

Neither memory is lost on the senior in his final postseason run. But Berry says the team is trying to put emotions aside and focus on defending the crown.

"It's not about the rivalry now," Berry said. "It's just about the ACC Tournament and surviving and advancing ... It's just another team in our way."

Duke is more than just another team, though. So was Miami. This week in Brooklyn is significant for UNC's postseason seeding, sure, but it's also a chance to right wrongs under the bright lights of Brooklyn.

It's only human nature, after all.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Caleb Jones