WASHINGTON, D.C. — It didn’t take long for Theo Pinson to realize what type of player Joel Berry would be.
“Joel Berry is a pit bull. I’ve known that since I came here with him,” Pinson said. “The dude just plays hard every second he’s in there, and that’s what Coach loves about him, that’s what I love about him.
“He gets everybody else going.”
And in Thursday’s ACC Tournament quarterfinals, Berry provided a critical spark for the top-seeded Tar Heels, scoring a game-best 20 points in an 88-71 win over eighth-seeded Pittsburgh at the Verizon Center.
The Panthers (21-11) jumped out to an 8-0 lead, as UNC started the game 1-for-7 from the field and struggled to contain Pittsburgh’s Jamel Artis.
While the Tar Heels (26-6) overcame the early deficit, they couldn’t build any momentum, settling for jump shots and consistently allowing the Panthers to penetrate on defense.
For Berry, UNC's early struggles fueled him.
“I don’t like when someone thinks they can just do whatever they want against me,” Berry said. “That gets me going. I’m self-motivated, but when someone is scoring on you or something, that gives you a little bit of a fire under you.”
And late in the first period, Berry’s pit-bull mentality emerged.
After UNC surrendered the lead with 8:28 left before halftime, the sophomore scored seven straight points to keep his team from falling behind any further.
Berry’s 3-pointer with 4:06 left sparked a 13-2 run, concluding with a steal and layup by the sophomore. He entered the locker room with 13 points on 6-of-6 shooting and having willed his team to a 39-35 edge.
“When everything is going your way — you know, you’re knocking down shots and getting steals — that’s what you want,” Berry said. “It felt good, but I was just trying to do that because we needed a spark from somewhere, and it had to start from someone.
“So I just tried to pipe up my intensity.”
Berry’s aggressiveness carried into the second half, as he locked down defensively on Pittsburgh’s James Robinson and disrupted the Panthers’ post offense.
The sophomore guard tied his career high with four steals and complemented his defense with the same shooting touch he displayed in the first half, finishing the game 7-of-8 from the field.
But no shots were more important than those he made in the first half, as the Tar Heels never surrendered the halftime lead Berry helped provide.
“In the first half, Joel Berry was our offense,” Coach Roy Williams said. “There’s no question about that.”
Over the past four games, Berry is averaging 16.5 points per game and shooting 51.1 percent from the floor. And with an ACC Tournament semifinal game looming against Notre Dame on Friday night, Berry’s intensity could be needed once again.
“He really gets after it, he really does,” said junior forward Kennedy Meeks. “His dreams and aspirations for this team are just like Coach’s, and that’s what you need in a point guard — someone to lead the way for us to get to a championship.”
And on Thursday, Berry helped the Tar Heels take the first step toward one.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.