When Joel Berry went to the floor with a twisted ankle less than four minutes into the second half of North Carolina’s blowout victory over Texas Southern, a stunned Tar Heels crowd went silent. There were immediate flashbacks to 2012 when starting point guard Kendall Marshall was felled by an injury in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The common denominator in both injuries sat on the UNC bench Friday at Ben Secours Wellness Arena in the first round of the Greenville Regional.
“I’m not trying to think about stuff like that,” said senior reserve guard Stilman White following UNC’s 103-64 victory.
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This time, the injury was not serious. Berry, UNC’s starting point guard and second-leading scorer, returned to the court with 11:45 remaining. His injury will not affect his status for Sunday’s second-round game against Arkansas.
“Joel’s really tough. Honestly, sometimes I think he should be playing football instead of basketball. He’s a brute,” White said. “He can take shots as good as anyone on the team. I knew he was good as soon as he went down.”
That was hardly the case six seasons ago when Marshall went down, sidelined for the remainder of the tournament. In Marshall’s place stepped White, who to that point in the season had averaged fewer than five minutes played per game.
White drew the starting assignment in UNC’s next two games, a win over Ohio followed by an Elite Eight loss to Kansas. Although he scored only six points in those two games, White contributed 13 assists without a turnover in 60 minutes of action.
“I still say this,” said UNC coach Roy Williams, “if we had been able to get to the Final Four in 2012, it would have been one of the greatest stories ever in college sports.”
White never again returned to a prominent role with the Tar Heels.
As has been well documented, White left the UNC program and school following that freshman season to embark on a two-year mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ogden, Utah. Both of his parents and one brother have completed similar Mormon missions, and a younger sister recently received the call to do the same.
Upon returning, White could have opted to play basketball elsewhere. Instead, Williams, who owns a home at Wrightsville Beach, visited White at his Wilmington home.
“(Williams) told me he wanted me back on the team,” White said. “I was ecstatic to hear that and to come back and have this great experience in my four years here.”
A foot injury slowed White the previous two seasons, yet he managed to play in four of UNC’s six tournament games a season ago. Friday was the most extended playing time he has received since December games against Davidson and Tennessee.
White played nine minutes against Texas Southern, contributing six points, three rebounds, an assist and two steals.
“It felt good. It was exciting to get out there,” White said. “My legs were a little bit heavy, but I was just trying to work through it and get in the flow of the game. It was fun.”
The exclamation point on his performance, and perhaps on his season and career came in the final minute when White made a steal at one end of the court and converted it into a layup – no dunk – at the other end.
“I don’t really dunk,” White said. “I like to show everybody I can get up there, but too many bad things can happen. I don’t want to be that kid who missed the dunk, so I just lay it up and take my two points.”