Catalyst Berry carries UNC to overtime win at Clemson

Bouncing back from a forgettable performance at Georgia Tech, Joel Berry scored a career-high 31 points to help the Tar Heels to an 89-86 victory that saved them from a damaging 0-2 ACC start

Joshua S. Kelly—USA Today Sports
Jan 3

CLEMSON, S.C. — If it wasn’t already obvious enough, then Tuesday’s game at Clemson cemented home one undeniable fact about this year’s North Carolina basketball team. As Joel Berry goes, so do the Tar Heels. UNC has struggled when the junior guard either isn’t in the lineup or not at his best, as was the case last Saturday when he battled both a flu bug and his jump shot in a stunning upset loss at Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are a much better, more fluid team — especially on offense — when Berry was at his best. And he may never have been better than he was against the Tigers. Bouncing back from that forgettable performance in Atlanta, Berry hit 7 of 10 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 31 points at the newly renovated Littlejohn Coliseum to carry his team to an 89-86 overtime victory that helped prevent UNC from a damaging 0-2 start to ACC play. “It’s great to see him like that,” teammate Justin Jackson, who contributed 18 points, said of Berry. “It does nothing but help everybody else, let alone help out team win the game. So for him to shoot the ball like that, for him to go on that spurt there that he went on, that’s the Joel that we know. We need him to keep that thing going.” The majority of the spurt to which Jackson was referring came immediately after Clemson (11-3, 1-1 ACC) had reeled off nine straight points to open up a 64-60 lead with 9:50 remaining. It began with a 3-pointer from the top of the circle and ended with a 25-foot bomb as the shot clock was running out. By the time he was through, Berry had scored 19 of his team’s 23 points in a spurt that saw the Tar Heels take control, at least temporarily, at 75-67. It was a performance that came at just the right time for both the star player and his team. “I was very disappointed in my shooting the other day against Georgia Tech,” Berry said of his 3 for 13 (2 for 9) effort. “I just went back (to the gym) and put up a lot of shots because I know my team depends on me to hit shots and I want to be a big-time player to help us win. “Once I came out to night I just felt good. I hit my first three. When it came off my hand I was like ‘yeah, this is going to be a good night.’ I just tried to do whatever it took to help this team.” As instrumental as Berry was in getting UNC to the brink of victory, he nearly cost his team the game with two critical turnovers in the final minute of regulation. But he got a reprieve when Clemson’s Avry Holmes missed the front end of a one-and-one in a tie game with 5.0 seconds remaining. Berry then hit the Tar Heels’ first basket in overtime before handing things over to his teammates to finish the job. Kennedy Meeks converted the last of his 10 offensive rebounds into the go-ahead basket with 1:12 left and Kenny Williams, who scored six of his 11 points in the extra period, closed it out with two free throws a minute later to put UNC over the top in a win coach Roy Williams said showed the resilience of both his team and its veteran leader. “I kept asking Joel if he was all right, because it’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone play 41 minutes. But to get 31 points on 19 shots, that’s pretty good. “We laid an egg on Saturday, but we bounced back tonight. I did like our toughness in doing it.” According to Berry, Tuesday’s gritty road win — which snapped the Tigers’ nine-game winning streak — was the kind of tight, gut-check kind of game the Tar Heels (13-3) needed to put them in the right frame of mind for what promises to be the most competitive ACC race since the league began expanding back in 2004. “Sometimes you need something like this to wake you up and I think this woke us up,” Berry said. “It just shows us that it’s a hard league and every game is going to be competitive. “Against Indiana we had a chance to come back and take the lead but didn’t do it. Against Kentucky we had the lead and gave it up. So tonight, even though it went into overtime, to be able to come out with that win and know we can keep the lead was good for us.”