Surprise contributor helps send North Carolina back to the Final Four

The Dagger
Surprise contributor helps send North Carolina back to the Final Four
Surprise contributor helps send North Carolina back to the Final Four

As North Carolina's starters addressed the media on the eve of their Elite Eight matchup with Notre Dame, reserve wing Theo Pinson interrupted the news conference with a pressing question.

"Where's my chair?" Pinson said, cracking up his teammates, "Where's my name at, though?"

Pinson may not have had a seat at the pregame news conference, but it's a safe bet he should get plenty of attention from reporters postgame. The 6-foot-6 sophomore was the catalyst for the 12-0 second-half surge that propelled the top-seeded Tar Heels to an 88-74 victory over the sixth-seeded Fighting Irish.

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North Carolina had just regained the lead on a Marcus Paige jumper when Pinson made his first of several huge second-half plays. He poked the ball away from Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson, skidded across the floor to retrieve it and then called a timeout just before Colson could recover to force a jump ball, a hustle play that sent the Tar Heels bench spilling out onto the floor to congratulate him.

Pinson continued to make an impact throughout North Carolina's momentum-changing surge, drawing a foul in transition, scoring a smooth layup in traffic and delivering a pinpoint lob pass to Isaiah Hicks for an alley-oop dunk. While Pinson finished with a modest six points, four assists and two offensive rebounds, the box score doesn't tell the full story of his impact.

Surprise contributions from Pinson helped North Carolina clinch its 19th all-time Final Four appearance and its fifth since 2000. The Tar Heels will meet 10th-seeded Syracuse in one semifinal while No. 2 seeds Villanova and Oklahoma will square off in the other.

North Carolina will probably be the title favorite entering the Final Four because of its dominance in the postseason so far. Of its seven victories during the ACC and NCAA tournaments, only the ACC final against Virginia was closer than 14 points.

If Pinson provided a timely spark for North Carolina on Sunday, it was the Tar Heels frontcourt that did most of the heavy lifting.

Brice Johnson exploited his size and strength advantage over Notre Dame's smaller power forwards, scoring 25 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dominating around the rim. Kennedy Meeks added 10 points of his own and took advantage whenever the Irish switched a smaller defender onto him so that Zach Auguste could match up with Johnson.

While Notre Dame stayed competitive by slowing down the tempo, running its methodical "burn" offense and relying on the creativity of point guard Demetrius Jackson, North Carolina always had an answer for every Irish basket because the Tar Heels scored nearly at will. They shot 61.5 percent from the field and grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, only failing to eclipse 100 points for a second straight game because the pace of play was too slow.  

The only time Notre Dame seriously threatened to take control of the game was just before Pinson's heroics. The Irish scored 12 straight points to grab their only lead of the second half and to briefly raise the possibility of a Final Four with zero No. 1 seeds in it.

A technical foul on Johnson in the midst of the Notre Dame rally suggested North Carolina might be losing its composure, but the Tar Heels regained their poise after Paige's bucket and Pinson's steal.

It was the biggest sequence of a game that North Carolina otherwise controlled from nearly start to finish.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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