When Joel Berry II arrived at the Smith Center on Monday, ahead of UNC's third ACC game in five days, something started bothering him.
Even though he had played 72 of a possible 80 minutes in wins over Duke and N.C. State, it wasn’t fatigue he noticed. Nor was it any nagging injury, like the sprained ankles he played on through UNC’s 2017 national championship run. It was pain from a tooth.
One 3 p.m. trip to the dentist and a dose of medication later, Berry scored a game-high 21 points, as No. 14 North Carolina defeated the Notre Dame, 83-66, for its fourth consecutive win.
“I honestly think it was my wisdom teeth,” said Berry, who played 33 minutes. “I haven’t gotten them out yet.”
The senior guard, who spent the last few days guarding the likes of Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr. and Markell Johnson, had another tough assignment awaiting him. Matt Farrell, who didn’t play in UNC’s first meeting with Notre Dame, was on a tear in his last three games. He’d scored 16, 19 and then a career-high 28 against Florida State on Saturday night.
“He came into the game pretty confident,” Berry said. “We saw a couple of the shots he took that were really deep, so we knew we had to come in and make it uncomfortable for him.”
This strategy worked, to some degree. Farrell missed his first seven shots, including five 3-pointers, before finally scoring on two free throws at the 4:35 mark. But he was still in control of the Notre Dame (15-11, 5-8 ACC) offense and recorded five assists in the first 20 minutes.
“He was 0 for 9,” head coach Roy Williams said, “and I thought he dominated the first half.”
UNC’s response to Farrell came from a variety of players — eight scored in the first half, and none had double figures. Berry scored nine, tied for the team high, on a 3-pointer, a jumper and two contested layups. He and Kenny Williams kept North Carolina (20-7, 9-5 ACC) up 38-34 at halftime.
Then, following a recent trend of late, the Tar Heels’ next 20 minutes were much improved. The team shot 56.7 percent and outscored the Fighting Irish 45-32. Berry scored 12 more points in the second half, most of which came at opportune times.
There was an early 3-pointer to push UNC’s lead to seven, and an and-one layup that Berry converted while falling sideways across the middle of the lane. Then came a right block pull-up jumper at the 7:10 mark. On the next possession, Notre Dame’s John Mooney, who was 6-6 on threes on the night, missed all three free throws after he was fouled on a triple.
A 13-0 UNC run followed soon after, stretching a 67-63 lead to a comfortable 80-63 one. Theo Pinson, Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye scored in that stretch, but it was Berry, the senior leader, who put the exclamation point on it.
He sank two free throws, ending the night at a perfect 3-3. He’s now 86 of 96 on the season (86.9 percent) and is second in single-season percentage only to Shammond Williams, who made 91.1 percent of his in 1997-98.
For his last two points, he called for a Maye screen and forced a switch. Berry gave 6-foot-10 Martinas Geben one hesitation dribble, then flew past him to the left and scooped a right-handed layup under Geben into the hoop.
More than any scoring feat, Berry highlighted his team’s improved defensive effort. Within their 13-0 scoring run, the Tar Heels switched to hard hedges and a 21 defense.
“I honestly think that the hard hedging is the way to go, because it makes the point guard, or whoever’s dribbling the ball, retreat to the halfcourt line,” he said. “That way, they can’t hit the roll guy so easily.”
And the on-ball defense shifted from 22 — which emphasizes tight man-to-man defense, helping on drives and quickly closing out on threes afterward — to the level below it. Berry and teammates were now focusing on the gaps within a looser defense, and sticking to their man without cheating over too much. Farrell ended the game 3-18 and 1-12 on threes, and fellow starter T.J. Gibbs was 1-9.
“They really defended Matt and T.J. well,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said, “and that was a big difference in the game.”
Now four games removed from ACC Tournament play, UNC is arguably in its best groove of the season. And Berry, who quietly moved into 21st place on North Carolina’s all-time scoring list with 1,651 points on Monday night, is one of the prime reasons for that.
“He’s a tough little nut,” Roy Williams said of his senior leader. “He’s got a bad tooth, but he’s got a big heart.”