Ripe for an upset without Berry, Tar Heels escape again

If theres one disputable fact that can be taken away from the two games the North Carolina basketball team played during the past week, its that the Tar Heels arent nearly as good without Joel Berry in the lineup as they are with him in it

Evan Pike—USA Today Sports
Dec 11

CHAPEL HILL — If there’s one disputable fact that can be taken away from the two games the North Carolina basketball team played during the past week, it’s that the Tar Heels aren’t nearly as good without Joel Berry in the lineup as they are with him in it. It was even more painfully obvious on Sunday against Tennessee than it was four days earlier in a narrow win against Davidson. UNC survived again without its on-court leader, rallying from a 15-point first half deficit to beat the Volunteers 73-71 at the Smith Center. But it was a struggle of epic proportions that ended up in the win column — at least in the estimation of coach Roy Williams — more by good fortune than skill of good coaching. “It’s pretty easy to figure out,” Williams said afterward. “That’s the luckiest I’ve ever been in 1,003 games (as a head coach). That’s flat out the bottom line truth. “We got a good start early in the second half, got some turnovers, got it back and made it a basketball game, then made a couple of plays at the end. I told (Tennessee coach Rick Barnes), that’s the luckiest I’ve ever been as a head coach in 29 years. It was a struggle.” The Tar Heels did overcome a lot of obstacles on their way to their 10th win in 11 games this season, many of them of their own doing. Their defense, or what little of it there was, allowed the Vols to shoot a blistering 65.4 percent in the first half while on the other end of the court, veteran leaders Justin Jackson and Nate Britt combined to go just 7 of 25 from the floor. Starting big men Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks played only 16 and 14 minutes respectively because of foul trouble and ineffectiveness. And even when they were on the floor they were often more of a hinderance than a help — to the point that Williams told them “if you’re not going to give us anything, don’t stay in the lane all day.” They eventually did, opening up the middle for UNC’s perimeter players to start attacking the rim rather than standing out behind the 3-point line and missing jumpers. The Tar Heels were just 2 of 17 from beyond the arc. While luck did play a role in their winning rally, it took some strong plays from a couple of unlikely sources to finish off the Vols and avert disaster for the second straight game. The UNC comeback actually began before halftime following an 18-2 run that staked Tennessee to a 28-13 lead. Freshman guard Brandon Robinson came off the bench to pick up two assists and a driving basket to help his team shave the deficit down to single digits before the break. Robinson was again front-and-center in the final minute when his tip-in off a Britt miss finally gave the Tar Heels enough breathing room to hold on. All three of UNC’s freshmen contributed important plays down the stretch to help make up for their veteran teammates’ struggles and absence of their team’s best player — who was sitting on the bench in street clothes nursing a sprained left ankle. “The freshmen are great,” Britt said. “That’s two games in a row they’ve come off the bench and made contributions. All three of them are getting more comfortable.” Robinson finished with six points, three assists and three rebounds. Seventh Woods made all three of his shots for six points, including back-to-back drives midway through the second half when Tennessee (4-4) appeared to be regaining its momentum. Bradley had the biggest game of the three with 10 points and 10 rebounds, four of which came on the offensive glass. His most meaningful play, however, came on the game’s final possession when he got his hands up and blocked Lamonte Turner’s attempt at the tying basket along the left baseline. “It happened pretty fast,” Bradley said. “I knew I needed to help off my man, so I just put my hand up and the ball hit my hand.” The freshman center said he wasn’t thinking about the possibility of fouling Turner and sending him to the line. “I just wanted to block the shot,” he said. That determination seemed to rub off on the older members of the Tar Heels, several of whom rose to the occasions when their team needed it most. Britt, in particular, came up big — first on the defensive end with two key steals in the opening minutes of the second half, then by making three of his final four shots offensively. Jackson also made one of his few baskets count by scoring off a drive with 2:14 left to put UNC up for good at 70-69. “I think we did a good job of bringing that left in the second half,” Britt said. “But that’s how we have to start every ga