Pinson, Hicks earn seats at the table, North Carolina a Final Four spot

PHILADELPHIA — Theo Pinson waltzed onto the dais in the middle of North Carolina’s news conference on Friday afternoon, interrupting the interviews with the starters to ask where his seat was.

“I’ve been coaching 28 years and I’ve never had one friggin’ player walk up in the middle of a damn press conference,” Roy Williams said with a laugh, as Pinson came over to squeeze his head coach’s shoulders.

Williams might want to add an extra seat on the dais in Houston this week because without the vivacious Pinson, North Carolina might not be making the trip.

The sophomore, along with fellow benchmate Isaiah Hicks, keyed a furious rally just when the wheels started to fly off for the Tar Heels, lifting North Carolina, the lone No. 1 seed left, to an 88-74 win over Notre Dame and its first Final Four trip since 2009.

The depth of this Carolina team long has been its not-so-secret weapon, but in this NCAA tournament, the stars have been so steady and good the subs haven’t needed to do too much.

This time, one of the stars nearly cost the Heels dearly. Brice Johnson, still miffed that he was whistled for a travel call a possession earlier, slammed the ball in fury after being called for an over-the-back offensive foul on a rebound. As the ball bounced high toward the ceiling, the obligatory technical foul whistle came.

That put the exclamation point on what already was a furious Notre Dame rally, with Steve Vasturia sinking the free throws and Bonzie Colson connecting on the ensuing possession, completing the Irish’s rally from down 11 to up one in less than three minutes.

While Johnson stewed on the bench, Pinson and Hicks came in to the game.

By the time Johnson came back on the court, North Carolina was back up nine. Pinson and Hicks combined for nine of the 14 points, including the play that more or less ended the Irish rally and punched the Heels’ ticket to Houston.

Marcus Paige outworked Zach Auguste for an offensive rebound, flicked the ball ahead to Pinson, who found Hicks for an authoritative alley-oop dunk.

Johnson jumped up and screeched up from the bench and the Heels faithful joined.

And then Hicks, following the rules made long ago by Dean Smith, pointed to the man who gave him the assist, to Pinson, the player who earned a spot at the table.

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