NEW ORLEANS – With 9:44 to play until halftime, Tulane had pulled to 20-19 with a 7-0 run. It was then Joel Berry subbed back in and got to work leading the way he knows best.
Berry forced tempo following a charge call, driving into the lane and tossing up an alley opp to Isaiah Hicks. He then came up with a steal on Tulane’s ensuing possession and found Justin Jackson in transition for a layup. Next time down Berry drained a 3-pointer from out front, and then added a free throw 39 seconds later.
Four possessions. Four points, two assists and a steal. That burst of production expanded UNC’s margin to 28-22 and the Green Wave was unable to slice into that differential the remainder of the evening.
Vocal leadership hasn’t come easy for the junior point guard, who is stepping into the great void left by Marcus Paige. Leading with his play, however, has long been second nature.
“It has been a little bit of a challenge, but I’ve been getting a lot better at it,” Berry said after the win. “I’ve just got to know that the guys believe in me and believe in what I do. If I’m out there playing hard, they’re going to play hard, so I’m going to continue to lead by example. If I do that, sometimes I don’t have to say as much.”
Roy Williams agreed, saying, “He leads more by example than anything,”
Berry, a preseason All-ACC first-team selection, finished Friday’s 95-75 season-opening win over Tulane with a career-high 23 points on 6-of-11 shooting (4-of-7 from 3) to go along with six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Missing from that stat line is Berry’s ability to frustrate the Green Wave’s offensive rhythm by extending his pressure past halfcourt once he returned to the game after UNC’s lead had been pared down.
That defensive approach, rather than words, was Berry’s attempt at calming his teammates while challenging their opponent.
“That’s why I tried to pick up my man full court, just trying to get things going,” Berry said. “I feel like people build off seeing someone work hard. So if they see one person getting up and denying, picking up their man full court, that energy goes throughout the whole team. Once I started picking up full court, things started to turn around and the intensity went up.”
The words eventually will have to come. There will undoubtedly come a time when adversity is thick and the Tar Heels are looking for Paige’s guidance. Someone else will have to step into that role, and Berry says he’s prepared for that responsibility.
“Here and there, I’m going to say what I have to say, but otherwise I’m going to continue to play hard and hope that my guys play hard as well,” he said.