Stars shine as UNC rolls to sweet tourney victory against Butler

For the first time since a win against Florida State on Jan. 14, UNC stars Joel Berry and Justin Jackson topped the 20-point mark on the way to a 92-80 win against Butler that sends the Tar Heels into Sundays region championship game against Kentuck

Justin Ford—USA Today Sports
Mar 24

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Justin Jackson and Joel Berry have formed a 1-2 punch that has carried the North Carolina basketball team all season. And yet, even though one or the other has led the Tar Heels in scoring 28 times in 37 games on the way to another deep NCAA tournament run, they’ve rarely been at the top of their offensive game at the same time. Friday, in the South Regional semifinal against Butler, the junior stars picked a good time to buck that trend. For the first time since a win against Florida State on Jan. 14, both topped the 20-point mark on the way to a 92-80 win at FedExForum. Berry broke out of his recent shooting slump by scoring 26 points while Jackson added 24 in a performance that makes their top-seeded team all the more dangerous as it rolls into an Elite Eight showdown against Kentucky on Sunday. “At this stage of the year, if you don’t have good offensive games or good defensive games, you go home,” said coach Roy Williams, who improved to 8-1 in Sweet 16 games during his tenure at UNC. “We do need to be clicking a little bit on all cylinders and yes, we need both (Berry and Jackson) making shots and doing some things for us.” Berry has some difficulty doing either lately as he’s struggled with both his accuracy since the start of the postseason and an injured right ankle since his team’s NCAA opener against Texas Southern. The 6-foot guard had made only four of his previous 20 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc over his past four games, but he got off to a hot start by knocking down his first two long-range jumpers. Jackson, who regained his touch last week in Greenville after a four-game drought of his own, also hit an early 3-pointer while adding several of his trademark floaters to help the Tar Heels (30-7) jump out to a double-digit lead after only eight minutes. As instrumental as the UNC stars were in softening Butler up, it was the contribution of a less-heralded role player that provided what turned out to be the knockout punch. Pressed into extended service because of foul trouble to both Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley, Luke Maye bettered his career high of 13 points in just over eight minutes midway through the first half. He scored 14 of the his team’s 25 points during that stretch to put the Tar Heels up 30-14. “It’s different when you have a guy that can step out and shoot threes,” Berry said of Maye, a 6-foot-8 sophomore who hit three 3-pointers on the way to a 16-point, 12-rebound effort. “That just helps us,” added Jackson. “For him to come out here and play like this, it was huge.” Even bigger was the way UNC rose to the occasion once Butler finally regained its composure and started battling back. Led by big man Andrew Chrabascz, the Bulldogs (25-9) put together a 9-2 run that cut their deficit to 38-29 with 5:15 to go before halftime. The spurt was reminiscent of late first half comebacks that helped opponents climb back into contention in three of the Tar Heels’ four postseason games. That didn’t happen this time, though, as 3-pointers by Maye and Nate Britt sparked a 12-0 answer to regain control heading into the break. “The game against Arkansas helped us prepare for that,” Britt said, referring to the mid-game letdown last Sunday that nearly cost UNC its second round game against the Razorbacks. “We were trying not to let off the gas and letting teams back in it. “Coming in we knew how tough a team Butler is and that they would never give up. We didn’t want to let this become another game where we had to grind it out.” While the Tar Heels did manage to maintain their double-digit lead through the entire second half, they still had to sweat a little thanks to a Butler zone that limited them to only one 3-pointer in seven second half tries, their own shaky free throw shooting and a spill that saw Berry come up limping briefly. But drama was averted when Berry and Jackson combed to score 11 of UNC’s final 15 points and close things out after the Bulldogs pulled to within 10 at the 5:49 mark. “Today kind of gave a statement that we’re a high-caliber team,” Berry said. “We just have to keep on playing. I know we’re a great team. I feel like we’re the best team in the country if we just keep that confidence.” And its two biggest stars keep playing at the top of their game.