Joel Berry needed all of 13 seconds on Tuesday night against Pittsburgh to surpass his scoring total from North Carolina's defeat at Miami on Saturday. Berry entered Tuesday searching for a strong game after that performance in South Florida, and so too did the Tar Heels.
Their 80-78 victory against Pitt at the Smith Center wasn't exactly what UNC had in mind – the win didn't come particularly easy, after all, against the ACC's last-place team – but it was a win, nonetheless, and one that keeps UNC in sole possession of first place in the conference.
That was the good news for the Tar Heels. The bad: A long stretch of offensive ineptitude, combined with poor free throw shooting in the final minutes, nearly led to a loss. The outcome wasn't decided until Jamel Artis missed an off-balance, rushed 3-pointer as time expired.
The final buzzer sounded. The Tar Heels, at least, exhaled.
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They wound up needed just about all of Berry's 19 points. And all of anybody's points, really.
Berry, UNC's junior point guard, scored but two points and missed all eight of his shots during that ugly 77-62 defeat against the Hurricanes on Saturday. At one point he allowed his frustration to boil over into a technical foul that UNC coach Roy Williams described as unacceptable.
Two days later, Berry looked a lot more like the player he's been most of this season. Along with his 19 points, he made five of his nine 3-point attempts. It was the third time this season that Berry has made at least five 3-pointers, and it came after he missed all four of his 3-point attempts on Saturday.
Three of his most important points, though, came the old-fashioned way: on a three-point play – a layup and a free throw – with about a minute and a half left after Pitt improbably cut UNC's lead to one. With Berry's layup, UNC made its first shot from the field in about 6 ½ minutes.
Those were dreadful minutes of offensive futility for the Tar Heels, who missed nine consecutive shots from the field. Those misses allowed Pitt to hang around and have a chance late, and the Panthers still had hope even after Berry's three-point play.
On the Panthers' next possession, Jamel Artis made a 3 that cut UNC's lead to 74-73. Justin Jackson, who finished with 20 points, quickly scored with a layup to give the Tar Heels a three-point lead. After Chris Jones made a 3 to cut UNC's lead to two with 15 seconds left, Jackson made one of his two free throws and the Tar Heels led 79-76 with 9.7 seconds remaining.
Instead of allowing the Panthers to go for the tie with a 3-pointer, UNC elected to foul. Artis made a pair of free throws, cutting UNC's lead to one, before Isaiah Hicks, the Tar Heels' senior forward, made one of his two free throws to give UNC its two-point lead in the final seconds.
After Hicks' free throw, Artis missed the 3 at the buzzer. And so it ended.
UNC needed Berry's productive perimeter shooting against Pitt's 2-3 zone. The Panthers don't normally play a zone defensively exclusively, but they did on Tuesday – likely after studying how Miami's 2-3 zone successfully hindered the Tar Heels' offense on Saturday.
UNC in that game failed to work its possessions to the interior, where starting forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks combined to attempt only seven shots, and the Tar Heels also made just seven of their 24 3-point attempts. It wasn't a combination conducive for success.
The Tar Heels more effectively countered the zone on Tuesday, but they still didn't run their offense with optimum precision. Hicks (19 points) and Meeks (10) both finished in double figures, but UNC most often relied on Jackson and Berry on the perimeter.
Berry made his fifth 3 with about 16 minutes to play. It came on UNC's next possession after Cameron Johnson, Pitt's sophomore guard, tied the game at 49 with one of his five 3-pointers. At the time, the Panthers appeared energized by the prospect of engineering a stunning upset, one they nearly pulled off.