On his first shot, everything seemed back to normal for Joel Berry II.
One minute and 39 seconds into the No. 9 North Carolina men’s basketball team’s 93-81 win over Bucknell, Berry caught a swing pass from Theo Pinson and fired off his first shot since being named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player in Glendale, Ariz., in early April.
Nothing but net.
But Berry’s first made field goal since April would also be his last of the night. The senior guard shot just 1-11 from the field, tallying only eight points as he made his first appearance of the season after missing the Tar Heels’ (2-0) season opener against Northern Iowa due to a broken right hand.
Head coach Roy Williams, who was honored for winning his 400th game at UNC, joked with Berry about his poor shooting during a postgame presentation.
“He’s the one that handed me the ball out there,” Williams said. “I told him I was glad it was a handoff and that he didn’t shoot it at me.”
Berry brushed off any excuses about the splint or tape he wore to secure his healing right hand, instead focusing on helping his team any way he could. He finished the game with six assists and four rebounds in 30 minutes of play.
Perhaps the most notable of Berry’s contributions came defensively. Twice in the first half, Berry and his fellow senior Pinson double-teamed Bucknell ball handlers and forced turnovers.
The second of those came when Berry popped the ball out of Stephen Brown’s hands, snatched the loose ball out of the air and immediately hurled it back, straight into the right hand of a streaking Pinson, who executed a crafty fast-break layup.
“You could just tell that we’ve played together for years,” Pinson said. “As soon as he got the steal, I just said, ‘Woo woo,’ and he just threw the ball down court. Just having him back out there is huge.”
Luke Maye emphasized the importance of Berry’s return and said his contributions go far beyond scoring points.
“It was great to have him back,” Maye said. “He’s an unbelievable defensive player, really a great leader.”
Berry thought he returned seamlessly to the lineup, a credit to the Tar Heels’ open-play style and lack of a dependence on any one player.
"We’re unselfish and we like to share the ball,” he said. “So that’s why it’s easier for guys to come back and be accustomed to what’s going on.”
While Berry’s scoring fell off, his teammates picked up the slack. Maye scored 20 for the second time this season and Pinson notched career highs in points (19) and free throws made (9).
But the unexpected star of Wednesday night was Sterling Manley. The first-year recorded a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds in only 17 minutes of play.
Manley wasn’t surprised by his own production, but he parroted Williams' emphasis on effort over results — the same mantra that led Berry to his productive, albeit low-scoring night.
“The main focus for Coach Williams is,” Manley said, “if you rebound, if you box out, if you play defense and you run the floor, you’re gonna be on the floor and you’ll be productive. So that’s what I try to do. I rebound, and if I get points, then that’s a bonus.”
This approach is encouraging, but with a four-game West Coast road trip looming, the Tar Heels need Berry — their second-leading scorer last year — to regain his form soon.