Kentucky probably did North Carolina a favor without even realizing it. By successfully denying Joel Berry the ball on Sunday’s pivotal inbounds play, the ball instead ended up with Theo Pinson, who wasn’t playing on two bad ankles and was able to get up the court much more quickly.
With Luke Maye’s game-winner coming with 0.3 seconds left, that might have made the difference. By the time Maye let the shot go, Berry had just crossed the 3-point line, trailing the play.
Under normal circumstances, there’s probably nowhere North Carolina would rather have the ball than Berry’s hands in that situation, but these are anything but normal circumstances for Berry and the Tar Heels. They went into the weekend worrying about Berry’s right ankle, and they’ll go into the Final Four worrying about the left one, too.
“It made me frustrated, but I just kept my head in the game,” Berry said. “I just toughed it out and did whatever I could for my team.”
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It will be a long week of waiting for the Tar Heels now, hoping six days is enough time for Berry to get back to some measure of health from the knees down. The Tar Heels even decided to fly west a day early, just in case his ankles swell on the long flight.
“If that’s going to happen to Joel, I’d rather it happen on Tuesday night than Wednesday night,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Monday. “Hopefully by the time we get to Thursday or Friday, he’ll be able to do some things in practice, but I’m scared to death right now because I don’t know.”
After spraining his right ankle in last weekend’s NCAA tournament opener against Texas Southern and playing through it against Arkansas and Butler, Berry reinjured the same ankle in practice Saturday – a development only disclosed after Sunday’s win – then fell awkwardly on his left ankle less than five minutes into the game, spraining that one as well.
Berry had tears in his eyes when he went to the locker room and North Carolina’s season once again seemed to pause, expecting the worst. But he returned quickly, even if he was visibly limited the rest of the way. Berry went a 25-minute stretch without making a shot, went 0-for-5 from 3-point range, and was twice called for offensive fouls as he barreled into opponents, presumably because he was unable plant his feet strongly enough to stop his momentum – and still hit a key jump shot during North Carolina’s late 12-0 run.
“To play 33 minutes, with that toughness?” Williams said. “And he can really shoot the ball, and he’s 0-for-5 because he couldn’t push off there, so he kept driving the ball to the basket and making tough shots.”
It’s really a remarkable thing that the Tar Heels were able to beat Kentucky with Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt struggling – and Pinson, too, until the final minutes – and Berry running around on two increasingly bad legs.
Now Berry has six days to rest and rehabilitate both ankles before North Carolina faces Oregon in Saturday’s second semifinal. That was, roughly, enough time to get him somewhere approaching full strength against Butler, which bodes well for his health.
He is also, in Williams’ words, “a tough little nut,” a sobriquet so often applied to Marcus Paige which Berry appears to have inherited. After playing through one bad ankle against Arkansas and two bad ankles against Kentucky, it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which Berry would not play next weekend.
Afterward, with the euphoria of Maye’s shot still floating in the air, as the Tar Heels stomped their feet through the alma mater, Williams and Berry stood and watched – one with two bad ankles, the other with one knee recently replaced and another that needs it.
“I’m not stomping,” Williams said he told Berry.
“I’m not either,” Berry responded.
Berry’s ankles had done enough Sunday. He has six days to rest. Six days to get ready. Six days to heal. If the Tar Heels want to keep celebrating, North Carolina will need Berry at his best.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock