MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The tears flowed once Joel Berry reached the locker room not long after North Carolina’s Elite Eight classic with Kentucky began. After battling the previous 10 days through a right ankle injury to help his team reach this final NCAA Tournament day of March, the junior point guard sprained his left ankle on a drive less than five minutes into the game.
“I was just driving to the hole and I tried to push off and my ankle just rolled,” Berry told reporters after the 75-73 win. “That hurts worse than coming down on it and someone’s up under you. When you try to push off on it, you’re putting all of that power into your foot and so that’s why it feels much worse than it did last week.”
And so after Berry and athletic trainer Doug Halverson left the Tar Heel bench to return to the locker room, the emotion and the frustration of the moment finally caught up with him. He cried, not knowing how his ankle would respond or if he would be able to return to the court.
Not long after, Berry jogged through the tunnel and back to the bench, signaling to his teammates, his coaches and his fan base that he was not yet ready to go quietly into the madness of this month.
“I just got my mind together and I ran back on the court,” he said.
The second-team All-ACC guard promptly checked back in, scoring off a drive on his first possession and logging 33 minutes without an ability to favor one leg over the other. Every step served as a reminder of his ankle pain, the left fresh and sharp, the right, which he sprained again in practice on Saturday, familiar and sore.
“I’ve got two bad ankles right now, but I’ve got time Saturday to get some rehab,” Berry said. “Last week, I did a great job in such a small amount of time, so until Saturday, that’s enough time to get me right.”
The ankle injury affected the lift on his shot most, evident in his 4-of-12 shooting (0-of-5 3FG) performance.
“Where it really affected him was planting his feet and going up to shoot the ball,” Roy Williams told reporters in his postgame press conference. “I thought he was okay and tried to give him one break around the five-minute mark. I think I got him right back in. But I've said it affectionately and not any kind of criticism, he's a little tough nut. He's out there with both feet not feeling really good.”
It’s a compliment to Berry that few questioned whether or not he would play against Arkansas in the second round after turning his right ankle against Texas Southern, or that he would be capable of performing at a high enough level against Kentucky after emerging from the locker room.
“My parents have raised me to be a tough guy,” Berry said. “Throughout my whole career, I’ve always had to fight for what I wanted. I’m not the tallest person, and I’m not the most talented, but what makes a big difference is how hard I work and how I try to outwork people.”
Berry credits his two older sisters for toughening him up during his childhood, while noting that his parents weren’t the type to coddle their children. The other aspect to this injury equation is his role as the heart of this Tar Heel team. Berry, more than any other player on UNC’s roster, has consistently reminded anyone who will listen that last April’s national title game loss was a motivating factor to finish the job this season.
“I know the goals that we have and I want to be a part of it,” Berry said. “I know I have to be a part of it to get back to where we want to be, so I didn’t want to let my team down.”
During the postgame celebration while the band was playing the alma mater and the Tar Heels were hopping around and stomping their feet, Williams and Berry stood together and watched.
“I said, ‘I'm not stomping,’” Williams recalled. “He said, ‘I'm not, either.’ He's got two bad ankles. I've got two bad knees.”
Good thing the Tar Heels will be able to catch a flight to Phoenix.