GLENDALE, Ariz. – Not long after North Carolina outlasted Oregon on Saturday night, Joel Berry’s parents told him what his coaches already knew and what recent box scores had confirmed: his sprained ankles were hampering his shooting form, and therefore his shooting percentages.
The second-team All-ACC guard turned his right ankle against Texas Southern in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round, re-injured it in practice the day before UNC’s Elite Eight win over Kentucky and then sprained his left ankle during the game against the Wildcats. Berry has since turned into a grinder for the Tar Heels, playing well below full health but toughing out heavy minutes to get his team back to the national championship game.
“I’ve been in pain ever since I twisted my right ankle,” Berry said at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. “I did my left one, and I’ve been in pain ever since. At this point, I can’t think about it. I just have to continue to play. Sometimes, it limits me and my movement but sometimes I get so lost in the game to where I don’t even realize it. Tomorrow is the last game of the season, so I have to give it my all regardless of what pain I’m going through. I can rest on Tuesday.”
UNC athletic trainer Doug Halverson has guided Berry through an assortment of treatments over the past three weeks focused primarily on managing pain while increasing range of motion. The training staff has utilized a variety of different techniques, such as soft tissue work, stretching programs, compression devices and pool therapy, in an attempt to address the injuries thoroughly.
While those treatments have been largely effective, Berry’s ankles are still weak, turning the strength of his game – his perimeter shooting – into a liability since landing awkwardly on a Texas Southern defender’s foot after attempting a 3-point shot.
Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Apopka, Fla. product was shooting a career-best 45.4 percent from the floor and 41.5 percent from long range. In five NCAA Tournament games, he is shooting 28.3 percent from the floor (17-of-60) and 23.5 percent from deep (8-of-34).
“My ankles aren’t as strong as they used to be,” Berry said. “I can take as much medicine as I want to, but that doesn’t help the strength at all. That just takes the pain away to be able to get out there and play.”
Berry scored 11 points on 2-of-14 shooting (2-of-8 3FG) in the Final Four win over the Ducks. He knocked down a three from the right wing 26 seconds after tip, and then proceeded to miss his next 10 field goal attempts. During a media timeout with 7:48 to play, Roy Williams told his point guard to make more of an effort to get his legs into his shot, and when the opportunity arose three possessions later, Berry converted his second 3-point attempt.
“It’s hard because you’re so used to just shooting without thinking about it, and now I have to sit there and think about getting lift in my legs,” Berry said. “I don’t like it, but I’ve just got to play through it. There’s nothing I can do about it right now.”
Berry tagged his health at 75 percent following Saturday’s win, although he was feeling better on Sunday after waking up without any stiffness. His left ankle has been more problematic this week than his right, although he’s kept quiet in the locker room about his pain. His teammates have enough things to worry about.
“Joel’s done a good job of hiding it,” senior guard Nate Britt said. “I don’t think anyone on the team can really tell that he’s bothered by his ankles at all.”
There were questions during the Tar Heels’ final media availability of the season about whether or not they could topple Gonzaga without Berry playing at his best. He offered the right answers, highlighting the recent play of Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks while noting the other aspects of his game – defense, tempo, passing – that are still viable when his shot’s not falling.
While his shooting statistics may be harsh during the NCAA Tournament, his effectiveness has been anything but. UNC is plus-73 in 159 minutes with Berry on the floor, and minus-13 in 41 minutes with him on the bench.