Resurgent Berry helps Tar Heels avoid Pittsburgh upset bid

UNC overcame a spotty defense and some missed free throws down the stretch to hold on for an 80-78 win against the ACCs last place team

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Graduate transferCameron Johnson fouls his future UNC teammate Joel Berry during the Panthers' loss to the Tar Heels last Jan. 23

CHAPEL HILL — Joel Berry missed all eight of his field goal attempts in Saturday’s loss at Miami. So upon his return, the North Carolina guard went right back into the gym and took 500 shots in an effort to get his rhythm back. The next day, he said he took 600 shots. All that work paid off Tuesday as Berry went 6 for 12 from the floor, including 5 of 9 3-pointers, in a bounce back performance against Pittsburgh. As it turned out, the Tar Heels needed every last one of those baskets to hang on to first place in the ACC with an 80-78 victory at the Smith Center against the last place Panthers. “I expected to come out tonight and shoot the ball well,” said Berry, who finished with 19 points. “If you put in time, you’ll get results. It kind of helped me get back on track.” While Berry looked like his old self again instead of “some alien that climbed up into his body” on Saturday, as his coach Roy Williams jokingly put it, the rest of his team found itself battling many of the same issues that led to its lopsided loss in Miami. Specifically, UNC once again had trouble attacking its opponents’ zone defense while surrendering too many open shots on the other end of the court. The only significance between the two games three days apart is that this time the Tar Heels were able to make enough shots of their own — though just barely — to come away with the unexpectedly hard-earned victory. “We did enough to hang in there,” Williams said afterward. “Enough to keep a little lead.” It might not have been quite so little had Williams’ team executed better on either end of the court down the stretch. UNC finally appeared to have gained some separation from the struggling Panthers, who have lost seven straight, when Isaiah Hicks converted a three-point play for a 68-59 lead with 7:40 to play. But the Tar Heels (20-4, 8-2 ACC) went the next four possessions without scoring while allowing Pitt’s Michael Young to hit a pair of uncontested treys from the top of the circle to close the gap. Then with a chance to put the game away again, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson and Hicks all missed free throws, the latter coming with 4.8 seconds left after Williams had his team deliberately foul in an attempt to protect a three-point lead. It wasn’t until Jamel Artis’ 3-pointer at the buzzer fell short that UNC was assured of avoiding one of the biggest upsets of an already unpredictable ACC season. Pitt is now 12-10 overall, 1-8 in conference play. “Sometimes you have to be tough at the end,” said Hicks, one of four Tar Heels to score in double figures with 17 points. Jackson led the way with 20. “We need to make those free throws,” Williams added. “But that’s the first time we’ve been in that situation this year and I think it will help us next time.” As for his team’s defensive issues, the UNC coach was a little less upbeat about his team’s ability to get its act together. Pitt’s 55.6 percent accuracy (30 of 54) was the best this season against the Tar Heels. It also marked the second time in the last three games that an opponent has shot better than 50 percent from the floor. Particularly troubling was the Panthers’ 13 of 29 performance from beyond the 3-point arc, with six of them coming from Cameron Johnson, who tied a career high with 24 points. “Some way, somehow I have to figure out a way to do a better job coaching on the defensive end of the floor,” Williams said. “I’ve always taken great pride that we can do some things there.” Unlike Berry’s shooting touch, though, defense isn’t something you can go into the gym and regain by shooting 500 or 600 jumpers. “It’s just taking pride in wanting to guard somebody,” the junior point guard said. “If someone is scoring on you every possession, you’ve got to at least man up and say ‘I’m not going to let him score on me anymore. Once we get that mentality, that will help us a lot.”