Joel James had endured a couple of games that had tested his confidence and Joel Berry had experienced a stretch that had him questioning a few things himself – like how exactly he’d managed to commit some turnovers that left North Carolina coach Roy Williams shaking his head.
Yet after the Tar Heels’ 86-78 victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday, Williams described his team’s win, in parts, as “a Joel and Joel party.”
“I was happy they were both with us,” he said.
And with good reason. James, the burly 6-foot-10 senior forward, led No. 7 UNC (13-2, 2-0 ACC) early and scored on three consecutive possessions, which prompted a nice ovation when he left the game for the first time. And then there was Berry, the sophomore who made the shots late that turned the game in UNC’s favor.
It has been a journey for both players to reach the point where they are. James arrived at UNC unpolished and raw, yet during the past two seasons has become a valued part of the Tar Heels’ frontcourt rotation.
Starting in place of the injured Kennedy Meeks, James on Saturday matched his career-high with 11 points. Berry, meanwhile, arrived as a heralded prospect but endured injuries that limited his production as a freshman.
One year later he has emerged as one of UNC’s best players – especially in clutch moments when his team needs something good to happen. Berry made an important 3-pointer in a victory earlier this season that ignited a strong finish in a victory against Kansas State. And so it was again on Saturday.
Berry’s 3-pointer from the right wing with about five minutes to play gave UNC, which trailed by nine points late in the first a half, a 69-67 lead – one it would not relinquish.
Moments later, after a Georgia Tech turnover, Berry finished a play at the rim and drew a foul. He made the free throw, completing a three-point play that left the Smith Center crowd, tense at times on Saturday, loud and rocking.
Before that six-point burst, it had been something of a struggle for Berry, who finished with a career-high 19 points. He had committed five turnovers and seemed out of sync with the rest of the team offensively. But then came the flurry – the game-turning 3-pointer followed by the three-point play.
“I knew that I wasn’t really having a good game on the offensive end and then they were paying a lot of attention to Marcus,” Berry said, setting up what happened when he made the 3 that gave UNC the lead for good. “So when he came off the ball screen I just came up and it just gave me a little confidence when I hit the 3, I just felt like myself.”
The Tar Heels in two games a season ago beat Georgia Tech (10-4, 0-1) by an average of 30.5 points. It was a different story here on Saturday, though, with the Yellow Jackets leading for nearly half the game, and with UNC trying to fight its way back after it trailed by as many as nine before halftime.
James, the senior forward, provided that early spark and again provided a lift at the start of the second half. He’d scored 10 of his 11 points by the time he made a lay-up a little more than three minutes into the second half.
James entered Saturday with his confidence shaken after he’d scored one point combined during UNC’s previous two games. He’d missed all four of his attempts from the field during that span, and he played only nine minutes, despite starting, during the Tar Heels’ victory against Clemson on Wednesday.
Before the game on Saturday, though, James shared a conversation with Sean May, the former UNC center who is back with the program in an administrative role. May, James said, told him that his opportunities to play in the Smith Center were limited – that he had to take advantage of his time.
“Players go through ups and downs,” said James, one of five UNC players who scored in double figures. “But luckily I had a good talk with big May. He told me that it’s basketball. You’ve just got to keep your head up and just keep playing – go out here and try to have fun.”
James appeared to have fun – more fun, at least, than he’d been having – in moments on Saturday. The same could be said overall in the final minutes for the Tar Heels, whose lead grew as large as 10 points after Berry ignited a strong finish with his 3-pointer and three-point play.
The Tar Heels, who made six of their final eight shots from the field, shot 50.8 percent – the 11th time in 15 games they’ve shot at least 50 percent from the field. UNC was at its best late, when it most needed to be, and outscored Georgia Tech 21-11 during the final six minutes.
Afterward Williams found himself quick to praise two players who share the same first name, but with different pronunciations: “Joe-el” for James the usual one-syllable pronunciation for Berry. They’d both encountered recent adversity before thriving in different moments on Saturday.