CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Dennis Smith Jr. entered Sunday’s rivalry tilt with the fanfare and media hoopla. It was Joel Berry, however, who proved to be the best point guard on the floor in No. 14 North Carolina’s 107-56 rout of N.C. State.
The ACC’s preseason rookie of the year has lived up to that billing, averaging 19.6 points and 6.5 assists through his first 15 games. Smith was dominant in N.C. State’s victory over Virginia Tech last Wednesday, posting a triple-double with 27 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds.
That effort prompted a barrage of questions directed at Berry on Friday about the point guard matchup. Berry, who has an ACC Tournament MVP and nine NCAA Tournament games on his resume, deflected the emphasis on the individual matchup and redirected the focus back to the team.
The Apopka, Fla. native took a similar approach in Maui before scoring 22 points in the title game victory over Wisconsin while holding veteran point guard Bronson Koenig to two points on 1-of-15 shooting. He elevated his play once again in Las Vegas in arguably the best game of the 2016-17 season, matching the Wildcats’ De’Aaron Fox (24 points, nine FGs) with 23 points and nine field goals of his own.
On Sunday, Berry scored 12 of UNC’s first 31 points in building a 24-point lead less than 10 minutes into the contest. It was then that Smith checked out with three points and three fouls. The Tar Heels took a 33-point lead by halftime before securing their largest win ever against an ACC opponent.
Roy Williams noted Smith's foul trouble during his postgame press conference as a primary factor in N.C. State’s 26 turnovers.
"Dennis is the leader of the Pack and him getting in foul trouble like that was huge for us,” Williams said. “They turned it over a ton of times and (Smith) usually dominates the ball and doesn't turn it over - he's leading the ACC in assists.”
Smith finished with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting to go along with five assists and six turnovers in 26 minutes. Six of Smith’s 11 points came in the final four minutes after Williams had pulled his primary rotation players out of the game.
Berry scored 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the victory, rounding out his stat line with five rebounds, five assists, three turnovers and two steals in 23 minutes. After the game, the junior point guard stayed on task in downplaying the 1-on-1 matchup.
“It’s about North Carolina going against North Carolina State, and I think we did a great job of doing that,” Berry said. “I didn’t get caught up in the 1-on-1 matchup at all. I just did my job of staying in front of him. He’s their playmaker, so I just did my best to try to keep him out of the lane and keep him from creating for his other players.”
However, when pressed by a reporter about deriving some satisfaction from outplaying Smith, Berry’s PC façade cracked as he explained his motivation.
“There’s some just because I’m a competitive person, and I don’t want anyone saying that someone is better than I am,” Berry said. “That’s why I had a little edge today. I always go out there with an edge because this is the game of basketball. People are coming at you, so I just want to go back at somebody else. Everyone was making it a 1-on-1 matchup, so if everyone wanted that, I just felt like I wanted the edge on him, and I did that today and we were able to come out with the win.”
Berry closed the 2016 season with a combined 14 points on 3-of-17 shooting and six assists and six turnovers, although he kept quiet about a stomach virus during that stretch that kept him from eating for nearly three days and required an IV to stay hydrated. He bounced back with a career-high 31 points in the overtime win at Clemson on Tuesday before welcoming Smith, Jr.’s challenge.
“That’s the type of competitor that Joel is,” junior wing Justin Jackson said. “If he sees somebody that he might hear a whole lot about in the headlines or whatever it might be, he’s going to get up and he’s going to come out with all types of intensity. Dennis is a great player. He is a great player, and I think Joel knew that coming into the game and he respected that enough to come out and play as hard as he did.
“The competitor that he is, he’s going to come out and do that every single game.”