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Tar Heel Point Guard Toughness Personified

Derrick Phelps knows all about battling through injuries to get back to the Final Four.

In the days leading up to the 1993 Final Four, former North Carolina point guard Derrick Phelps wasn't asked about returning to college basketball's biggest event for a second time, or a potential rematch with Michigan and its roster chock full of NBA talent.

Most reporters, Phelps told Inside Carolina this week, wanted to know about his health.

Three weeks before UNC's matchup with Kansas and Roy Williams in the national semifinals, Phelps fell and injured his tailbone against Virginia during the semifinals of the ACC tournament. He missed the Tar Heels' ACC championship game loss to Georgia Tech the next day and, all of a sudden, the title hopes of a dominant team rested on the health of its point guard.

Phelps, who was pushing through tailbone, foot, elbow, ankle and knee injuries, as well as multiple concussions, said his answer to the media was a no-brainer.

"I'll worry about that tomorrow, but tonight I'm not worrying about it," he recalls saying. "I've got all summer to rest."

He hasn't talked with UNC junior guard Joel Berry, who has injured both ankles over the last few weeks. Williams said on Wednesday that if "we had to play a game today, I don’t think he’d play." 

Despite that prognosis, Phelps expects Berry's answer this week will be similar to the one he gave 24 years ago.

"He's going to be ready when the lights come on and it's time to put his body out there and play," Phelps said. "The key was that we played it pretty smart during those weeks of preparation. Not having me on the floor as much, just in case -- you didn't want anything crazy to happen during the week while we prepared -- but still be engaged, and know what the plan was and how we're going to handle it."

Phelps's comments carry extra weight considering he's one of just five starting point guards in UNC history with an NCAA championship. During his time at Chapel Hill, Phelps earned second team All-ACC honors as a senior in 1994 and honorable mention All-ACC accolades as a junior. He holds UNC records for most steals in a game (9) and career (247) and ranks fifth in school history with 637 assists. Phelps has spent the last decade in the coaching ranks, with stops at Monmouth, Columbia and now San Francisco.

Berry is two games away from joining that exclusive club to which Phelps belongs, and while the two have very different strengths, it's the intangibles that make them indispensable to their respective teams. Like Berry, Phelps was known by teammates and opponents for his seriousness, physical approach and do-whatever-it-takes-to-win attitude. Like Berry, Phelps entered his junior year looking for redemption for an earlier failure on the game's biggest stage (1991 Final Four loss to Kansas). 

"When he makes a decision, everybody follows," Phelps said of Berry. "You can tell when he's not in the game, it's kind of different."

The numbers bear that out. Despite Berry shooting far below his season averages in the 2017 NCAA Tournament (33% FG, 21% 3FG), North Carolina is +71 points in Berry's 124 minutes on the court during four tourney games, and -11 in the 36 minutes he's spent on the bench, according to Adrian Atkinson of The Secondary Break.

"I think the key is that he's a winner," Phelps said. "He doesn't care if he he's hopping out there with one leg, he feels he can make a difference and make the team play the best when he's on the floor. It doesn't matter (what's injured). If he can't make a shot he's going to do something on the floor to help that team win games.

"I always call it the ‘killer mentality.' You want to get on the floor and dominate your position. When you have that mentality, you’ll play that way. I think Joel Berry has that mindset."

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