WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Joel Berry strolled to the free throw line with less than a second left, Roy Williams pulled his sophomore point guard aside.
With UNC leading Virginia by two points in Saturday’s ACC Tournament title game, the Hall of Fame coach’s message was simple — make both free throws, and the Tar Heels are champions.
“He just told me to go up there and knock them down,” Berry said, “and that’s what I did.”
His second free throw swished through the net just like the first, and as the final buzzer sounded moments later — signaling UNC’s 61-57 triumph over the Cavaliers — Berry’s teammates mobbed him on the Verizon Center court.
First came Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson and then the rest, everyone gathering around Berry, the tournament MVP and the catalyst behind the Tar Heels’ first ACC Tournament championship since 2008.
Punctuated by a game-high 19 points on Saturday, Berry averaged 17 points in three tournament games and committed zero turnovers in the final two contests.
“Before every game, I tell him to motivate us,” Kennedy Meeks said. “No matter if he has to curse us out, no matter if he has to shove us, no matter if he has to settle us down — whatever it might be — his job as a point guard is to motivate us, and that’s what he did in this tournament.”
The Tar Heels specifically needed Berry’s motivation late in Saturday’s game.
With his team leading by just two points, the sophomore made one of the game’s most pivotal shots, connecting on a 3-pointer to increase UNC’s lead to 51-46 with 5:25 left to play.
Justin Jackson then stole a pass, sprinted down the court and dunked the ball, capping a 13-2 run by the Tar Heels that gave them a seven-point edge and control of the game. Berry scored seven points during the run.
But perhaps no shot during that period was more important than the one Berry made from behind the arc, where he went 3-for-3 against the Cavaliers and 7-for-10 during the tournament.
“I think everyone would like to hit a big shot,” he said. “But I just try to shoot it with confidence if I got the ball in my hand. That's the reason I just hit those shots, just because it was all about confidence, just using my instinct.
“When the ball was in my hand, I was able to knock it down.”
But that might not have been the case a year ago.
In his first season in Chapel Hill, Berry missed eight games because of injury and illness. He averaged 4.2 points in 13.2 minutes per game.
While he showed glimpses of his offensive prowess — going 10-for-20 on 3-pointers in the final 10 games of the season — he dedicated this past offseason to improving his shooting.
“Last year was a tough year for me with injuries, not playing as much, just trying to learn the system,” Berry said. “I was doing a lot of thinking. And then this summer I just knew I’d probably come in and have a bigger role with J.P. (Tokoto) leaving and just the way our team goes. So I just tried to get in there, and I focused a lot on it.
“It helped me out this season.”
The individual shooting drills and the one-on-one games with Jackson and Pinson have paid off this year — not only for Berry, but for the Tar Heels, too.
And with less than a second left in Saturday’s ACC Tournament championship, as Berry stepped to the free throw line after receiving directions from his coach, Jackson watched.
He knew the hard work Berry put in this past summer. He knew Berry’s desire to improve. And with a chance for UNC to become ACC Tournament champions, he knew Berry belonged at the free throw line.
“That’s kind of the way it was supposed to be.”
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