GLENDALE, Ariz. – Joel Berry considered pushing past the emotion of the moment, much like he did the pain of not one, but two sprained ankles for the previous three weeks.
While making his way to North Carolina’s end of the court after being fouled with seven seconds to play and a national championship all but assured, the junior point guard decided to utilize one of Roy Williams’s most coveted possessions: a timeout.
Berry’s the reason everyone knew about UNC’s redemption tour. He was the first to openly talk about making amends for last season’s crushing defeat in the title game, the first to tell reporters he had no intentions of settling for anything short of a date with the final Monday night of the college basketball season. At times, his words seemed too demanding, setting up his Tar Heel team for inevitable heartache.
Yet, he stayed true to that message, repeating it with such frequency that it became his mantra, and here he finally was, seven seconds from replacing that lingering hurt with a title of his own. And so he needed a moment.
“It was just a relief,” Berry told reporters following UNC’s 71-65 win over Gonzaga. “I couldn’t believe it. I told the ref, I was like, ‘yes, I need a timeout.’ I went over there to the side and I told Coach, ‘look, I needed that, I’m about to lose it.’ And he was like, ‘don’t lose it yet, knock these free throws in, and then we can celebrate.’”
The Apopka, Fla. native had told reporters after Saturday’s Final Four win over Oregon that he was about 75 percent and sore after battling his pair of ankle sprains. He said he didn’t even think about those tender joints on Monday, instead focusing on correcting his shooting form, which had been hampered by an inability to generate a proper lift on his shots (28.3 percent in five NCAA Tournament games).
“I put pressure on myself in saying, ‘you’ve got to continue to hit more shots,’” Berry said. “That’s what I was able to do. I didn’t shoot as well as I wanted to from the free throw line, but I think I made up for it with my hustle and just my heart and just giving it my all.”
Berry led all scorers with 22 points on 7-of-19 shooting and dished out six assists in claiming the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player award, which guarantees him a spot in the Smith Center rafters.
“That means a lot to me,” he said. “Big [Sean] May told me to leave my legacy tonight. I think I did that. To be up there in the rafters, when I walk out in the gym, I look up there every day and I try to see who’s up there. There’s so many great guys up there. It’s an honor and a blessing to be able to get my name up there because every time I come back and visit the gym – even though I’ve got one more year left – to see my name up there will be something that will be an awesome feeling.”
In some respects, Berry began this title run in last season’s national championship, a game in which he scored 20 points and later circled as infectious motivation. He’s not much of a tattoo guy, but he had the word “believe” inked on the inside of the left arm last fall. That ideal has been a driving principle in his life, thanks in part to a daily message from his father to believe in himself to do great things.
“My family, at the beginning of the game, they just all put their arms up and they had ‘believe’ on there,” Berry said, “and I was like, man, those are the people that have been behind me all of my life, and it just meant a lot to me.”
And so he proceeded to grind yet again, hobbled but healing, exhausted but emphatic. When the game was nearly over and he was standing at the free throw line, the first attempt clanged off the rim before the second found the net. As he turned to run back down the court, the tears started to fall.
He was crying after the national championship game for the second year in a row, but for entirely different reasons.