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Wednesday December 8th

Calm and consistent: Joel Berry embraces role as UNC's unquestioned leader

<p>North Carolina freshman Joel Berry (2) drives the ball down court. Berry played 16 minutes and scored seven points.</p>
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North Carolina freshman Joel Berry (2) drives the ball down court. Berry played 16 minutes and scored seven points.

He wasn’t sure if it fell because of Kris Jenkins’ game-winning shot for Villanova or if it was destined to drop when the clock ran out. He still isn’t sure. But in this moment, the North Carolina point guard was drowning in the wrong shade of blue. And he couldn’t escape it.

Behind him, Marcus Paige was crying. Brice Johnson was, too. And all around him stood a sea of stunned silence, faces stained with anguish.

“It’s a feeling I can’t describe,” Berry said. “Because I was just so hurt.”

But he can’t show it — not now. Head down, eyes up. Stay calm through the storm, and let your example lead the way. You never know who’s watching.

Is it for himself or for his team? It doesn’t matter. The scoreboard shows zeroes, but the game isn’t over. It never is.

“I don’t like anyone to try to have a picture of me looking sad one day and then happy the next day,” he said. “I just want to make it seem like it’s all the same.”

***

If you look closely, you can see Berry standing in the background.

He’s hiding in plain sight, masked by Paige’s omnipresent shadow. He likes it better this way.

In his first year, Berry studied under the All-American guard, mimicking the pace of his pickup game and drawing confidence from his post-play encouragement. But the following year, a preseason injury to Paige thrust Berry into a leading role. Soon, the sophomore surpassed his senior teammate — leading the backcourt in nearly every statistical category.

After garnering ACC Tournament MVP honors, Berry entered the national title game against Villanova as the Tar Heels’ second-leading scorer. But the attention was still on Paige.

“I just kept on playing my game, doing what I had to do,” he said. “And I knew, eventually, one day that people would notice.”

They didn’t — not yet.

From the opening tip, the Wildcats packed the lane in an effort to stop Johnson and Paige. So Berry took over.

The Tar Heels’ first bucket was a catch-and-shoot three from the sophomore guard. Later, Berry buried another from three steps behind the line. Then a stepback jumper from the right elbow. Every shot felt right.

By halftime, Berry led all scorers with 15 points.

“I think they just put me in the background,” he said.

The second half was a different story, as Villanova denied him open looks and played physical on his drives. With 13 seconds left, the ball was back in his hands, down three. The Wildcats pressed Berry across halfcourt, forcing him to throw an ill-advised bounce pass to Paige.

With six ticks left, a desperate heave seemed like the team’s only option.

But look closer.

“Once Marcus swung through, my guy actually went over to help,” Berry said. “And I was just sitting there wide open. I thought he was gonna pass it to me.”

Paige didn’t pass it, instead burying the most iconic shot of his four-year career. But there’s no time to celebrate — not for Berry.

“When I looked up at the clock and I saw there was 4.7 seconds left, I was like, ‘All right, we’ve got to stay calm,’” he said. “‘We’ve got to stay calm.’”

He’s in the foreground now. He’s earned it: 20 points, second only to Paige, through a team-high 37 minutes. But the only time that matters are these five seconds.

As Ryan Arcidiacono sprinted down the court, Berry shaded his left and drove him to the middle. But it wasn’t good enough, not to the naked eye. So Isaiah Hicks backpedaled, ever so slightly, to compensate.

But there was Jenkins, streaking down the court for the wide-open catch and release.

“And when it came out of his hand,” Berry said, “my thought was just, ‘Please don’t go in.’”

He could have jumped. But there was no point now. He watched, helpless and hapless, as the ball sailed over his head.

Let the confetti fall.

***

He wishes he could go back.

Every time he walks into the Smith Center, he remembers the shot against Villanova. And every time he looks into the rafters, he thinks about what isn’t hanging: a national championship banner and his own jersey.

“I want my name up there with those guys,” he said.

It could have been. Had the Tar Heels won the national title, Berry was in contention for Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Final Four — an honor that would have put his name alongside Paige and Johnson.

“It haunts me a little bit,” he said. “Like I still can’t even go back and look at the shot that Kris made because it just hurts me every time.”

In the days after, Head Coach Roy Williams called a meeting with Berry. The team needed a new leader, and he was the ascendant to the throne.

“I think everybody looked at Marcus last year to say what we need,” junior Theo Pinson said.

But when the Smith Center is quiet, Paige’s jersey looms large.

“Now I look around, and I don’t have Marcus there to do that anymore,” Berry said.

Vocal leadership is foreign to Berry, but the Tar Heels need it. After their final practice before scrimmaging against Memphis, Williams begged for more effort from his team.

After the meeting, Assistant Coach Steve Robinson pulled Berry aside and told him he needed to be a leader — as Paige had been before him.

“I kind of feel in some way that I have to be like him,” Berry said. “But I mean, that’s not a bad thing ...

“If they want me to be that guy, I have no problem with it.”

***

Close your eyes and let go.

Forget about Villanova and the shot you haven’t seen. Forget about Paige and the shots you’re supposed to take. Forget about the expectation.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“A lot of people get so caught up in what’s going on, they lose sight of having fun,” Berry said. “And so, I always meditate on just seeing myself having fun out there with my teammates.”

He’s been doing it since high school, no more than 10 or 15 minutes a day. Clear the mind. Prepare for the storm.

“We kind of let him do his thing,” sophomore Luke Maye said. “And we know he’s gonna be ready come game time.”

Tonight at 9 p.m. in New Orleans, Louisiana, the No. 6 Tar Heels will play Tulane in Berry’s first game as the unquestioned leader.

Win or lose — it’s all the same to Berry, or so he’d have you think.

@CJacksonCowart

sports@dailytarheel.com



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