KANSAS CITY, Mo. – While officials surrounded a video monitor at the scorer’s table with 3:10 to play and No. 9 North Carolina trailing Kansas State by five points, Roy Williams called a baseline out of bounds play for Joel Berry.
The sophomore had missed five of his first six shots, including a bumbling effort several minutes earlier when the ball seemed to simply slide out of his hands mid-air. Yet Williams decided to put the ball in his point guard’s hands with the game on the line.
“My own thinking, he had stunk it up so bad I thought it was about time he made a play,” the Hall of Fame coach said in his postgame press conference.
The play was basic. Berry set up on the opposite side of the court from the ball, ran off two screens and curled to the corner in front of UNC’s bench. Catch and release. The bucket was good, and the eight-point deficit the Wildcats owned three possessions earlier was down to two.
“When it came off my hand, I just knew it was good,” Berry said. “It felt good. I didn’t have a great shooting game, but when that came off my hand, I just knew it was good.”
Berry’s corner 3-ball was not the official start of UNC’s late surge – a pair of Kennedy Meeks free throws with 4:12 to play began the flourish – but it was the shot that flipped the momentum.
Kansas State had seized control of a back-and-forth game with stingy defense and 3-pointers from its 6-foot-10 forward and 6-foot-11 center. The Wildcats, despite an inexperienced roster, were making the plays the Tar Heels were not.
Berry’s shot changed the game’s trajectory, settling his team down while transferring the pressure to the team playing in front of a predominantly purple crowd.
After a K-State turnover, Justin Jackson (22 points) tied the game with a floater down the lane. Kennedy Meeks then tipped a pass out front and sauntered in transition for a slam dunk to give UNC a 70-68 lead. Kansas State’s Kamau Stokes, who scored 24 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting, turned it over on the next possession, which led to a Theo Pinson 3-pointer that essentially secured the come-from-behind victory.
“We just had a great series of plays, and that’s what we needed,” Berry said.
UNC scored 10 points over four possessions without allowing Kansas State to attempt a field goal.
“I think that last four minutes was the only time of the game we showed we really wanted it more than them,” Jackson said.
UNC failed to make similar plays in Saturday’s loss at Northern Iowa, a game in which the Tar Heels coughed up a 16-point second-half lead. There was familiarity, however, with a late deficit due to a recent practice period in which the white team faced a six-point deficit with three minutes to go.
During the final media timeout with 3:28 to play, Williams reminded his team of that particular drill, as well as the success the white team – his starters – had in rallying.
“I tried to tell them we had a chance,” Williams said. “And I really felt like we did. We needed one stop each time down there and they only could get one bad shot.”
The 13th-year UNC head coach wasn’t the only one pushing that message. With senior Marcus Paige still sidelined due to a broken hand, it was Jackson that stepped into a leadership role at the Sprint Center.
“I called everybody together and I said, ‘We’re only going to do this together,’” Jackson said. “We had four minutes to do it, and so we went out there and got a few stops, got some good shots and guys knocked them in.”
UNC closed the game on a 21-3 run.