CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- With six minutes left to play, Joel Berry swiped the ball away from SoCon preseason player of the year Tre’ McLean and dove onto the hardwood for the loose ball and floor burn. It didn’t matter that his Tar Heels were leading by 30 points.
Berry would later tell reporters he doesn’t care about the scoreboard. He’s just trying to set a precedent.
“Each and every year, I think every time we come in everybody challenges us on being physical, being competitive,” Berry said after UNC’s 97-57 win over Chattanooga. “So I’m trying to establish the nature that North Carolina basketball can get physical and can be competitive. Whether we’re up 40 or 50, if that ball is on the floor Coach (Roy Williams) wants it to be ours. I’m going to play like that every single play no matter what.”
In the first half of Sunday’s game, Chattanooga was standing tall with the Tar Heels. It wasn’t until the seven-minute mark that momentum started to truly shift towards UNC. And, no, it wasn’t because of a dunk or a 3-pointer. It was because of a loose ball.
Kenny Williams tipped a pass and flung himself toward the ball, only to be met by Chattanooga guard Greg Pryor diving into him. Joel Berry then went to the ground in an attempt to wrestle the ball away from Pryor.
The Dean Smith center erupted in applause, and the Tar Heels rolled.
“Those last couple of minutes we just turned up the defensive intensity and turned up our effort,” Williams said. “Guys were diving on the floor, guys were getting out there on defense. The crowd got into it after that and we got into it and everybody on the bench and on the court. We got a lot of fast break and easy layups to open it up.”
The 6-foot-4 Williams said that games will always depend on how badly UNC wants it.
“Effort, that’s all it is,” he said. “To come and give all that you can on the court for the time that you’re on the court… If you play with effort than things will go your way. Shots will go your way, you’ll start to get more steals, you’ll get more fast-break layups then the shots go in, also.”
Roy Williams told reporters it was the defensive play of the sophomore wing at the end of the half that turned the tide in favor of the Tar Heels.
"His was probably the key,” Williams said. “We yelled at him because he didn't go to the board, and then the next time he gets an offensive rebound, next time he dove on the floor, next time deflection.”
The Tar Heels knew after the end of the first half that they needed to replicate that same mentality to keep pulling away, according to Berry.
“Effort and intensity; once we got that going, the intensity switched to our side,” Berry said. “That’s what coach wants. If anything goes wrong, or he gets mad at anything, it’s always effort. I felt like we gave that today. That’s why we were able to get that 20-point lead in the second half.”
As the 2016-17 team continues to develop its identity, senior center Kennedy Meeks believes it may come from getting down in the dirt and being physical.
“When we dive on the ball, it gives us all energy,” Meeks said. “It shows how hard that those guys are working.”