ANNAPOLIS, Md. – There was no shortage of pressure involved with Joel Berry’s first collegiate start. With All-American Marcus Paige watching from the sidelines, the sophomore point guard stepped into his role and directed the nation’s top-ranked team to a 91-67 win over Temple.
Berry scored 14 points on 4-of-11 shooting (2-of-2 from 3) in a team-high 32 minutes. He connected on all four of his free throw attempts and pulled down six rebounds to go along with four assists, three turnovers and two steals.
“I just wanted to go out there and play my game,” Berry said during UNC’s postgame press conference. “I know my teammates are out there to help me, so it wasn’t too hard to adjust to. I was just happy to go out there and get the win.”
The Tar Heels fell behind 9-4 at the first media timeout in adjusting to life without Paige. Berry knocked down his first 3-pointer on UNC’s ensuing possession and scored on a jumper two possessions later to give his team its first lead at 12-11.
“I thought he did well,” head coach Roy Williams said. “He's been making more shots than he made tonight. He's got the ability to make those little runners and layups, and he missed a couple tonight. He's been shooting the ball well from the three-point line.”
Paige praised Berry for his defensive work throughout the game, while backup point guard Nate Britt credited him for playing with poise and getting everyone involved. Theo Pinson, who started his first game since last season’s opener against N.C. Central, provided his own perspective into Berry’s contributions.
“We knew how Joel was going to play,” Pinson said. “Joel was going to play like Joel. I feed off Joel a little bit, because he’s so locked in when he plays basketball. I’m the same on the court as off the court, laughing and stuff like that, but Joel is so serious. I try to put that in my game also when he gets on the floor.”
Aside from Paige, Berry had the best preseason during practice, according to Williams. That fact, along with the 13th-year head coach’s lack of preference for whether Paige plays at the point or two-guard spot, offers a proving ground of sorts for Berry in the weeks to come.
Learning to play without Paige could be beneficial for once he returns in approximately three weeks.
“Marcus can score the ball,” Berry said. “He does a lot of things for us. That’s one of our key players, but with him being out, we just have to step up. Everyone has to take on different roles, and as you saw tonight, we were able to do that.”
Berry more than most.