UNC’s Berry is back; his shooting touch still waiting to arrive

The UNC star went 1 for 11 against Bucknell on Wednesday in his return from a broken hand, suffered in a freak video game incident

Joel Berry shoots a jumper over Bucknell's Zach Thomas during Wednesday's game at the Smith Center (Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — Joel Berry was back Wednesday night. His shooting touch is still waiting to arrive.

That’s not a completely unexpected development, considering that the North Carolina star missed most of the preseason with a broken bone in his right hand.

Eventually, the two will be reunited and Berry will regain the form that helped him earn Most Outstanding Player honors at the Final Four in leading the Tar Heels to last season’s college basketball national championship.

For now he’s just happy to be back on the court, working through the inactivity that helped contribute to an unsightly 1-for-11 performance in a 93-81 victory against Bucknell.

“It’s just me getting back in the groove,”said Berry, who only returned to practice on Monday. “That’s why they wanted me to get back out on the court tonight, to be able to get the rust off before we go on this long trip.”

UNC (2-0) will play its next four games on the road, at Stanford next Monday before heading to Portland, Ore., for the loaded PK80 tournament.

Although Berry was scheduled to make his debut Wednesday, coach Roy Williams didn’t originally plan to play him as much as he did. But he didn’t have much of a choice with Cameron Johnson and Brandon Robinson both sidelined with injuries, the former undergoing surgery on his knee earlier in the day.

Berry didn’t play poorly in his 30 minutes of court time, tying for the team lead with six assists and two steals and playing solid defense while committing only a single turnover and going 5 of 6 from the free throw line.

The only thing that wasn’t in midseason form was his shooting stroke.

He got off to a promising enough start, hitting a wide open 3-pointer from the top of the circle on his first attempt of the night, just two minutes into the game. That, however, was his only basket, misfiring on his next 10 shots, including four 3-pointers.

Joel Berry played with his broken right hand taped in his first game back for UNC, Wednedsay against Bucknell (Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports)

“I halfway expected that, but when he made the first one I thought I was going to be wrong,” said Williams, who earned his 400th victory at UNC with the win. To commemorate the milestone, the coach was presented the game ball. Berry, as team captain, did the honors.

“He was the one who handed me the ball out there and I told him I was glad it was a handoff and he didn’t shoot it to me,” Williams joked. “He’s a tough kid. He played 30 minutes. I’m mad at myself that I played him that much, but he does not have any bad effects from playing.”

Berry played with the last two fingers on his right hand taped together, but he said that didn’t alter his shooting form. Instead, he blamed the misfires on having spent so much time shooting left-handed while his right was on the mend.

“Some of the shots I missed tonight, I’ll eventually get my rhythm back,” he said. “I’ve been left-dominant for the past three weeks. Overall, I’m just glad I was able to get back out there on the court and play with the guys.”

Berry said that his competitive nature made it difficult being out of action and missing last Friday’s regular season opener against Northern Iowa.

It was that competitiveness, however, that led to him being injured in the first place.

He broke his hand punching a door after losing a video game to teammate and fellow senior Theo Pinson.  

“I lost the game and was walking back to my room and I jokingly went to punch the door,” Berry said. “The door frame pops out from my door, so my pinkie finger ended up catching it. If I would have hit the door straight on, I would have been just fine. But I ended up hitting the door frame.

“I know that’s not the way to do things, but you live and you learn. I tried to be as positive I could throughout the whole thing. It gave me an excuse to work on my left hand.”

It’s not the first time Berry has gotten upset over losing a video game. He related an experience in which he threw a controller at his father after losing a game to him.

In this case, Berry was playing NBA 2K17 against Pinson. He was the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pinson was the Golden State Warriors.

“When you’re playing with the Warriors, it’s kind of cheating,” Berry said. “But I had a chance and it kind of got to me.”

Wednesday, Berry and Pinson were back on the same team for the first time this season. And they couldn’t have been happier about it.

“It was fun,” said Pinson, who scored a career-high 19 points in the victory. “That’s my guy. It was fun just being out there with him again for our senior year. I’m glad he’s back. I’m sure he’s glad he’s not sitting on the sideline watching us play.”