CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Joel Berry has thought a lot about North Carolina’s loss at Duke last month. He’s thought a lot about how his team led with 6:50 remaining and how it was the Blue Devils that made the plays down the stretch to claim victory.
Those thoughts were present during Saturday’s rematch, serving as a reminder that while Berry waited too long to be assertive at Cameron Indoor, that was not an option on Senior Night. There was too much at stake.
And so Berry turned in arguably the best regular season performance of his career, leading UNC with 28 points on 9-of-14 shooting in the 90-83 victory over Duke. It was his first 20-point game in seven weeks, dating back to the win over Florida State.
“I just wanted to be more aggressive for my team,” Berry said after the victory. “I just tried to make shots. Every time I shot, I told myself it was going in, and it did go in for me.”
With the Tar Heels needing an offensive spark late, Berry elevated his play, scoring nine points over the final 8:12. The Apopka, Fla. native took charge in the final four minutes, scoring seven straight points with buckets on three of four possessions and a free throw with 34 seconds remaining to push UNC’s lead to 86-80.
“He definitely was doing a great job of giving us shots and layups when we needed them,” senior forward Kennedy Meeks said. “That’s the type of player he is. I’m blessed to have him as my teammate, especially tonight, because he definitely lit it up from the field.”
Roy Williams highlighted Berry’s driving layup with 3:41 to play, along with Justin Jackson’s 3-ball from the top of the key, as crucial plays in the win. With Amile Jefferson stuck on Berry on the left wing due to a switch, the junior guard drove to his right into the lane, only to slice back to his left for a layup when Grayson Allen helped off the opposite block. The score provided some separation at 81-78.
“Big-time players have to make big-time plays in big-time games,” Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
In games such as these, and certainly in the games that will follow, crunch time expands to include more minutes than a typical regular season game might. Berry found his rhythm early, scoring 19 first-half points behind a 5-of-5 shooting display from 3-point range. However, as halftime approached, he heard the Duke coaching staff yelling at his defenders, “Get up on him! Get up on him!”
Despite his hot hand, Berry outmaneuvered his opponent in a way only savvy veterans can, attacking the Blue Devils off the dribble when clutch time arrived.
“Instead of just trying to force a three and taking a bad shot, I tried to get to the hole and put them in a bad situation,” Berry said.
It was a strategic approach that was lacking in Durham last month, one based in exploiting Duke’s defensive look instead of letting ego dictate his actions. Sure, maybe a sixth 3-point attempt may have yielded the same result as his first five, but a miss would allow the Blue Devils to be out and running, stressing a Tar Heel defense that was already taxed.
“I think this was the first time that I was conscious about the shots that I took,” Berry said. “The one shot that I took, when Justin passed it to me on the baseline and I was leaning back – it was a midrange shot - I went to the sideline and I told my team, ‘my bad,’ because that was a bad shot and that led to a 3-point shot.”
That thought process worked, eliminating the need for Berry to harp any further on the loss in Durham. His focus now shifts to applying these lessons to the postseason ahead.