MEMPHIS — For the second time in three games, Joel Berry was scared.
The North Carolina guard was finally at full strength for his team’s Sweet 16 game on Friday, just seven days after injuring his right ankle against Texas Southern in the NCAA Tournament opener. But with six minutes left in UNC’s 92-80 win, Berry slipped.
The junior’s ankle crumpled as he tumbled to the floor, while Butler’s Kamar Baldwin turned a steal into a trip to the free-throw line. For the first time in days, Berry felt the pain.
“Once you do it one time,” Berry said, “you don’t want to do it again.”
He lay on the court, if only for a moment. He didn’t want to relive the rehab that had consumed his week. More importantly, he didn’t want to let the Bulldogs come any closer.
So he paced around the FedExForum floor, with neither a word nor a limp. As Baldwin knocked down both free throws to cut the Tar Heel lead to 10, the pain subsided.
“Joel’s a soldier,” first-year guard Seventh Woods said. “So he’s gonna play through it.”
Two possessions later, Berry dumped it off to teammate Justin Jackson before streaking into the lane behind a blockade of UNC screens.
Jackson zipped an easy pass under the basket to Berry, who scored two of his game-high 26 points to halt the run from Butler (25-9). The North Carolina bench treated its two stars to a standing ovation — but for Berry, it was business as usual.
“We’ve got to take each and every game personally,” Berry said. “And we’ve got to focus in.”
The heady point guard was locked in Friday from the opening tip. After hitting just three shots in his previous two games combined, UNC’s second-leading scorer sank his first three shots of the night, including his first two 3-point attempts.
He also scored the final seven points of a 14-0 Tar Heel run midway through the first period gave North Carolina a commanding 15-point lead.
“Every time I see us getting to a point to where the other team is coming back … I just tell myself to be patient,” Berry said. “’Your time is coming.’”
And every time the Bulldogs threatened, Berry was waiting.
Just over three minutes into the second half, Baldwin buried a jumper to cut Butler’s deficit to 16. On the ensuing possession, Berry drove the baseline and drew a foul under the hoop. After the whistle, Baldwin tried to rip the ball from Berry’s hands.
After giving a retaliatory shove, the soft-spoken junior exchanged words with the first-year guard. Baldwin had gotten into his personal space, but Berry wasn’t scared — far from it.
“Sometimes the game gets like that,” he said. “And that’s when it gets fun.”
Seconds later, Berry drove right past Baldwin — who tried, unsuccessfully, to grab ahold of Berry’s waist — and sliced through the Bulldog defense for an acrobatic lay-in to fend off a Butler surge.
“Talking to him is just like feeding a hungry animal,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “He’s just gonna keep coming back stronger.”
The Bulldogs couldn’t come any closer until the 7:44 mark, when a 13-4 run cut the UNC lead to 71-60. But a Berry 3-pointer from the left wing halted any momentum. Two minutes later, Baldwin’s free throws narrowed the margin even further before Berry’s give-and-go stifled yet another Butler rally.
“He took it personal,” Woods said.
With 3:29 left, Berry picked up a charging call after his elbow connected with a Butler defender. Nine seconds later, North Carolina’s lead was back down to 11.
So on the next possession, Berry went to work. Gathering momentum from nearly halfcourt, he bowled into the lane and collided with redshirt senior guard Kethan Savage, who absorbed the contact and slid into the paint.
The referees didn’t mind, and neither did Berry — who converted the easy layup and stared down Savage, who lay helpless under the basket.
“He tried to take a charge,” Berry said, “and I made him pay.”
It was an aggressive and vengeful version of Berry that hadn’t been seen since a 28-point outburst against Duke in the regular-season finale. But it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Tar Heels (30-7), who await second-seeded Kentucky (32-5) in the Elite Eight.
Berry scored 23 points in UNC's 103-100 loss to the Wildcats in December after missing two games with a sprained left ankle. And if Friday’s game is any indication, he should be more than ready for Sunday’s rematch.
“I feel like we’re the best team in the country,” Berry said. “And so we’ve just got to keep that confidence.”
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