“Big-time players have to make big-time plays in big-time games,” head coach Roy Williams said.
By the time Berry stepped to the free-throw line with 34 seconds in the game, the Tar Heels (26-6, 14-4 ACC) led by five and the 90-83 win was all but sealed. He hit the first from the charity stripe to give him seven points in the game’s final four minutes and 28 for the game.
“Joel was unbelievable,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “You see him come out, making those tough shots back to back. Something just lit up in him.”
With junior wing Justin Jackson — the ACC Player of the Year — struggling to find his shot, Berry shouldered his team’s offensive burden in the first half. He scored 19 points in the opening period, including a blistering 5-for-5 from beyond the arc.
Each shot seemed to be harder than the last, whether it came with a hand in his face or off balance and off the dribble.
Yet each one swished through the net.
“I just tried to be more aggressive,” Berry said. “I felt like the start of the season I was being aggressive, then I just kind of stopped. I just told myself, ‘Be patient, my time is coming.’”
“I think when I hit my first two shots, I kind of knew that I was into the game and that it would be a good night.”
When the second half rolled around, though, Berry went quiet. He didn’t score until a pair of free throws with 8:12 remaining and didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer in the second period.
Berry has built a reputation of having more freedom to shoot than most who’ve played for Williams — but facing a renewed defensive focus from the Blue Devils (23-8, 11-7 ACC), he didn’t go hunting for his own shot.
“If I force threes and they didn’t go in, they’re a great team when they’re pushing the ball up,” Berry said. “It’s hard because they’re not running into the paint; they’re all running to the 3-point line and that’s hard to guard.”
“I didn’t want to take a bad shot to put our defense in jeopardy.”
Instead, Berry put the ball on the floor and drove into the teeth of the Duke defense. And in the final few minutes, faced again with a ticking clock and a game in the balance, he remembered the past and was determined to change the future.
“I thought about that last game, how I just waited too late to try to be more aggressive,” Berry said.
“Every time I thought about that and how I just tried to wait too late in the second half over at Cameron, that was just running through my head.”
By the time the final horn had sounded, there were no regrets for Berry. He took control of the game again, scoring seven of UNC’s final 11 points to ice the conference victory.
Now he has a night to remember — for a much better reason.