GREENVILLE, S.C. – Last fall, before North Carolina’s preseason practice began, Joel Berry had the word “believe” tattooed on the inside of his left bicep.
It’s a word that carries a message of optimism and hope, and it’s a word that Berry’s father shares with him, either by phone or text, every single day. It’s a message that’s filtered down through the family, as Berry’s sisters have followed their father’s approach.
“It’s something I live my life by,” Berry told reporters at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Sunday. “I always believe in myself and that’s what got me to where I am today.”
Where Berry is today, of course, is still alive in the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels’ participation in March Madness appeared doomed to be short-lived after eighth-seeded Arkansas took its largest lead of the game, 65-60, with 3:28 to play.
It no longer mattered that UNC had seemingly built an insurmountable 30-13 lead in the first half, or that the Razorbacks had charged back with a 37-16 run spanning nearly 13 minutes to take a four-point lead. What mattered was how the Tar Heels would respond with their season on the brink.
In the media timeout prior to Jaylen Barford’s layup that expanded Arkansas’s lead to five points, Roy Williams challenged his team to embrace the moment, not cower to it. These were many of the same players who rallied UNC from a 10-point deficit against Villanova with 5:29 to play in last year’s national championship game, so they had experienced tournament situations similar to this one.
“I told our guys we hadn't won one like this all year long,” Williams said. “That would be great for us. We've got to be tough. It's got to be with our brain and our heart both. We've got to get stops and we've got to get shots.”
UNC did just that, scoring on six of its final seven possessions while holding Arkansas scoreless on its final six possessions. The Tar Heels closed the game with a 12-0 burst, willing their way past the poor shooting, 17 turnovers and lackadaisical defense that had settled in for the previous 22 minutes.
“Those last three minutes were remarkable,” Theo Pinson said. “We’ve talked about that all year, just talking about locking in defensively, and we did at a perfect time.”
In the postgame locker room, there was more relief than celebration. The players spoke of toughness, heart and maturity when describing those final minutes, expressing an appreciation for the emotion of a game that transcended the basics of X’s and O’s.
“I felt like every time we missed a 50-50 ball, they got a three or an easy layup,” Pinson said. “Just for us to dig deep and find a way to win was huge.”
For a team without a singular leader in the mold of Marcus Paige or David Noel, various players raised their voices as the seconds ticked off the clock. Kennedy Meeks asserted himself on the defensive end, talking constantly and helping with ball screens, while Isaiah Hicks made it clear he did not intend for his career to end this way, here in this building, some 2,000 miles away from Phoenix.
The message was simple enough, according to ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson: “Just believe. Believe that we can win.”
With UNC back in front 66-65 with less than a minute to play, Berry lived his mantra on a drive down the right side in which he collided with the Razorbacks’ Adrio Bailey. Arkansas’s bench wanted a charge, UNC’s bench wanted a blocking call, and the officials provided neither, leaving Berry to offer a desperation heave at the basket to avoid a travel. The ball bounced off the backboard, where Kennedy Meeks was ready for the tip-in.
Call it luck, or as Williams said after the game, call it preparation meeting opportunity, referencing the old adage that was most appropriate on this night.
“We could have easily laid down those three or four minutes and gave in, but we’ve got dreams and goals we want to reach,” Berry said. “We just didn’t want to go home… We believed that we were going to win the game, we got a little lucky and we get to stay around.”
In a building in which No. 2 seed Duke would later lose to No. 7 seed South Carolina to become the eighth ACC team to be sent home during the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend, the Tar Heels survived and advanced to play in their 28th Sweet 16 and 35th regional semifinal.
“It was definitely a big relief just to know that we got away with that one,” Jackson said. “It felt like it was the hardest game we’ve ever played, so to be able to get out of that one and move on to the next round, it feels good.”