CHARLOTTE — When Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson checked out of Sunday night’s game, they did so together, just like they’ve done so many other times.
Together for a national championship loss, and for a national championship win. Together for their senior night speeches, and for the Instagram videos of them dancing to Migos.
And now, together for one last time as members of the North Carolina men’s basketball team.
In the final minutes of UNC’s 86-65 loss to Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the two seniors left to a standing ovation. Their coaches and teammates stood to greet them, as is customary for any UNC player subbing out of a game. But this time, it was different.
First came a hug from head coach Roy Williams, who told Berry and Pinson that he loved them — simple as that. Then, the long walk down the bench. Pinson and Berry embraced every assistant coach and teammate before taking a seat.
“I didn't picture it ending it like this,” Williams said afterward, his two seniors sitting beside him dismally. “I pictured it ending with these guys having a huge smile on their face, but that's not college basketball.”
As expected, North Carolina made no lineup tweaks and rolled with the same five players who have started since early January: Berry, Pinson, Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye. By the second media timeout, the Tar Heels led 18-13 in a fast-paced game that suited their style well.
The onslaught began right after that break. Fresh off the bench and ready to combat the Aggies’ frontcourt, reserve Sterling Manley sank a short turnaround jumper at the 11:37 mark. That gave UNC a 20-13 lead: one that ended up being its largest of the game, and one it would never get back.
Spurred by the 6-foot-10 Davis, the Aggies went on a rapid 15-0 run. Davis dominated down low during that stretch, drawing fouls on three different UNC defenders and scoring nine points with a variety of moves. Two free throws by Berry stopped UNC’s scoring drought, but Texas A&M continued to pile it on.
The Aggies finished the first half on an eye-popping 29-8 run, punctuated by a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left. After scoring 18 points in the first eight minutes of the game, North Carolina proceeded to score 12 in the next 10 minutes. The Tar Heels entered halftime trailing, 42-28.
“We've beaten people up over the years, and the tables were reversed today,” Roy Williams said. “We've been able to mask the problem all year long by making enough jump shots and getting to the free throw line ... We weren't able to do that today.”
The second half was uneventful. Texas A&M never came close to losing its momentum, and stretched its lead up to 24 at the 13:17 mark. At one point in the second half, both teams had shot 18 threes. The Aggies were 8-18; the Tar Heels, 1-18.
After the blowout loss was complete, Berry and Pinson sat at the same podium where, just days ago, they joked and broke down a comfortable first-round win over Lipscomb. Now, they sat in quiet reflection.
“I wish it wasn't my last time,” Berry said. “I’ve had so much fun here, and I really felt like coming to North Carolina really turned my life around and changed me into a young man.”
“Probably the main reason I'm not crying right now is because I've enjoyed every single moment I had with Coach, Joel and all my teammates in the past, teammates in the locker room right now,” Pinson added soon after. “That's the hardest thing.”
Perhaps most emblematic of Berry and Pinson’s impact was their head coach. Tears gathered around the corners of his eyes, from the moment he sat down until the moment he left. He would have used his handkerchief more, but he had already dropped it earlier trying to wipe away the first few drops of emotion.
“These two guys right here particularly been involved in some of the greatest moments I've ever had,” Williams said. “And right now, I'm very appreciative for them. I can’t think of any time where I’m sadder.”
The three of them left soon after, a short bus ride to Chapel Hill that will probably feel much longer awaiting them. Life will go on for Berry and Pinson, as it does for every college basketball player.
As for their North Carolina careers, however, Pinson put it best.
“I won't be able to get on a plane with them, five hours to L.A. to spend more time with them,” he said. “It's over.”
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