Tar Heels go sour without their lead Berry

Joel Berrys fourth foul five minutes into the second half proved to be the turning point as UNC suffered a 93-83 ACC tournament semifinal loss to rival Duke

Brad Penner—USA Today Sports
Mar 10

BROOKLYN — Justin Jackson might be the ACC Player of the Year. But Joel Berry is still the most important player on the North Carolina basketball team. That’s been proven time and again this season, but never more so than Friday night at Barclays Center in the ACC tournament semifinals against Duke. The top-seeded Tar Heels looked every bit the part of the nation’s best team for the first 25 minutes with their junior point guard on the floor. They shot 53 percent from the floor, exploited their size advantage inside to its fullest and built what appeared to be a comfortable 11-point lead on their neighboring rival. Then Berry picked up his fourth foul and everything changed. Suddenly, UNC stopped getting the ball inside, it started turning the ball over and it forgot how to defend. By the time Berry came back onto the floor 10 minutes and six seconds later, the game was too far gone to salvage. The result was a 93-83 loss to the fifth seeded Blue Devils that didn’t just prevent the Tar Heels from playing for the tournament championship on Saturday, but may also have cost them a No. 1 seed in the much more important NCAA tournament to come. “When you miss your leader on the court, it kind of hurts the team,” said center Kennedy Meeks, who tied fellow big man Isaiah Hicks for high-scoring honors with 19 points — but only two after Berry picked up his fourth foul. “He’s definitely one of the most important parts of our team. For us to miss him hurt us a little bit.” It actually hurt the Tar Heels a lot. And the stark numbers bear that out. Before Berry went out at the 15:04 mark of the second half, UNC had made 24 of its 45 shots. From that point on, it made only eight of its final 33. Before he went out they scored 36 points in the paint and after, just 14. Most important they held a 59-48 lead at what proved to be the turning point of the game. Although UNC tacked on another two points onto the lead shortly thereafter, the bottom soon dropped out as Duke outscored it 38-14 over the final nine minutes. “I put the blame on me,” a visibly upset Berry said in the locker room afterward. “I felt like me not being on the court hurt my team. I just wish that I was out there and able to compete, but it got taken away from me. “It was brutal and I hate that I was on the bench. I just wanted to be out there. As they came back, I was just itching. I wanted to be out there so bad, because I just like to compete.” From his seat on the bench, Berry had a front row look at what went wrong. “We got away from making them guard,” he said. “They’re not a good defensive team and we didn’t put pressure on them to guard. When we were moving and cutting and setting down screens and curling, it was hard for them to guard. But as soon as we started standing around, that played right into what they wanted to do.” It didn’t help matters that Jackson, who is officially in the throes of a major shooting slump, made just six of his 22 attempts (3 for 11 from beyond the arc) and appeared visibly flustered as things began to unravel. He had two key misses and committed an offensive foul during key stretch in which the Tar Heels saw a 70-all tie turn into a 77-70 deficit with 5:29 remaining. All the while, Berry watched from the bench in agony as his team’s offense grinded to a standstill. UNC still trailed by seven when he came back into the game at the 4:58 mark. Berry’s prolonged absence and the damage that was done during it begged the question of why coach Roy Williams waited so long to put him back into the game. It’s an issue Williams skirted in his postgame comments. “I don’t want to use any excuses,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “North Carolina was still playing Duke. (Backup) Nate (Britt) did some good things.” While he would rather have been on the court instead of the bench, Berry said he understood his coach’s decision not to put him back in earlier, when his presence might still have made a difference. “You never know how the game was going,” he said. “I could have bumped somebody and they would have called a foul. The coaches knew that. They were calling touch fouls and just one would have taken me out. So they would rather me stay on the bench a little longer and have me at the end.” While Williams was playing it safe, his coaching counterpart Mike Krzyzewski put his team into attack mode at the first scent of blood. He called a timeout to give his team a rest after an explosive Jayson Tatum dunk with 13:39 left. Then once the teams returned to