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Friday September 17th

Joel Berry gives everything he has to UNC men's basketball before title game

North Carolina guard Joel Berry (2) dribbles up court against Oregon in the teams' Final Four matchup on Saturday in Phoenix.
Buy Photos North Carolina guard Joel Berry (2) dribbles up court against Oregon in the teams' Final Four matchup on Saturday in Phoenix.

Joel Berry’s ankles aren’t what they used to be.

After spraining his left one early in the season, the junior point guard entered the NCAA Tournament with a relatively clean bill of health. But in the first game against Texas Southern, he twisted his right ankle. A week later, he sprained it in practice. Then he sprained the left.

He escaped Saturday’s win unscathed, despite hitting the deck more times than he hit a shot. On Sunday, simply rolling out of bed and walking normally was deemed a success. But even if the stiffness is gone, the pain never subsides.

“You just don’t understand what I have to go through until you actually experience it,” he said.

There’s no time for recovery anymore. No. 1 seed Gonzaga awaits in Monday’s national title game, led by All-American point guard Nigel Williams-Goss — who is battling an ankle ailment of his own.

Berry admits he isn’t 100 percent. At this point in the season, nobody is. But on this stage, nothing can keep the junior on the sidelines.

“He’s one of the best point guards in the nation,” senior guard Nate Britt said. “And I know he’ll show it in the next game.”

He couldn’t show it in UNC’s 77-76 win over Oregon. And it almost cost his team.

On two sprained ankles, Berry played 35 minutes — tied for his highest total this postseason. But after hitting the first three-pointer of the game, he made just one of his next 13 shots in an 11-point effort. He missed two crucial free throws with four seconds left that nearly gave the game away, and two of his shots were blocked.

Every time he rises up for a jumper, he’s bracing his ankles for liftoff. Whenever he drives into the lane, he prays he doesn’t trip on any stray limbs — like he did against Oregon’s Dillon Brooks on Saturday. His coaches can tell; even his parents see the difference. But he can’t get the pain off his mind.

“I just hate that I have it in my head just because sometimes it stops me from wanting to be aggressive,” Berry said. “When I make a move, I just think about it too much. But I just want to be able to stay out there on the court.”

To earn his place on the court Monday, he’ll have to put the pain behind him. But that’s easier said than done.

No amount of medicine can fully ease the burden of Berry’s two sprained ankles. The pain is mitigated, sure, but the strength doesn’t return. Only recovery sessions in the gym and training regimens with assistant coaches Doug Halverson and Jonas Sahratian can help with that.

“He’s the toughest guy on our team,” manager Chase Bengel said. “And I think it’s really shown this tournament.”

Berry said he started rehab on Sunday morning in preparation for Monday’s final test. His ankles won’t heal overnight, and he knows he could be limited against Gonzaga. But even if his shot doesn’t fall or his scoring dips, there’s only 40 minutes left. His ankles can withstand — he doesn’t have a choice.

“I have to give it my all regardless of what pain I’m going through,” he said. “There’s no tomorrow. I can rest on Tuesday.”

For three weeks, there’s been no rest for Berry. Even his birthday was a secondary affair.

On Saturday, Berry turned 22. There was no celebration — his mind was still on returning to his past form. He couldn’t present his team with much on the court, and he didn’t ask for a lot off of it.

But on Monday, he’ll give his team everything he has. And he only hopes they return the favor.

“I told them, ‘The greatest gift to me that I can get from them is not them buying anything for me or anything,’” Berry said. “’It’s just to be up there on that stage and holding up that trophy.’”

@CJacksonCowart

sports@dailytarheel.com

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