In his first-ever game against Duke in 2015, North Carolina senior guard Joel Berry’s excitement became his downfall.
Fueled by the hype on social media and around campus that surrounds each Duke-Carolina rivalry game, including this one at Duke on Feb. 18, 2015, Berry, then a freshman, was so overcome with energy and anticipation, it drained him. By the time the game began, he was already tired, and it showed. He shot 1-for-6, contributing three points, five assists and zero rebounds as UNC lost 92-90.
That won’t happen again, Berry decided. Three seasons later, he has mastered methods for staying calm. Along with his usual meditation routine, Berry avoids social media and takes a 15-minute nap before facing Duke.
“I just know that I have to see it as another game and just realize that I can’t get too excited, too amped up for it,” Berry said. “I just got to make sure I conserve my energy for on the court.”
Experience playing against Duke gives Berry and senior guard Theo Pinson an advantage, especially against the Blue Devils’ freshman-heavy lineup. UNC’s teams have struggled against Duke throughout Berry’s and Pinson’s time at UNC. The Tar Heels are 2-5 against the Blue Devils since the 2014-15 season when the two were freshmen.
The two have another chance at the Blue Devils Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Smith Center.
Last season, Berry was a difference-maker in the three times North Carolina played against the Blue Devils. When UNC beat Duke 90-83 at the Smith Center on March 4, Berry shot 64 percent and scored 28 points. In the two other games, Berry didn’t play as well and the Tar Heels lost. In UNC’s 86-78 loss at Duke on Feb. 9, 2016 and a 93-83 loss to the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament semifinals on March 10, Berry shot 38 percent and averaged 12.5 points per game.
This year, Berry is the team leader and his role is even more paramount. Pinson said he has not thought about the pair’s career record against Duke. But for Berry, the failures of the previous games add urgency to the two upcoming regular-season games.
“I think our approach this year is to make sure that for the first time, we can go 2-0,” Berry said. “We’ve won there, and they’ve beat us here, we’ve won here, so I think the next step is to try to go 2-0, which is tough, but hopefully we can, so we can get that record a little close to even and not have such a big gap.”
Berry, who is from Apopka, Florida, watched UNC and Duke compete on TV when he was younger, but it wasn’t until he was a part of it did he fully grasp the rivalry.
Growing up a Duke fan from Greensboro, Pinson had a better sense of the intense, electric atmosphere that would await him on the court. He spent his childhood going to as many Duke-UNC games as he could. But playing in them is entirely different.
A smile escapes Pinson when he imagines the scene: the Tweets and Instagram messages he receives in the days leading up to the game, the fans who line up hours early, the Smith Center roaring with each play. Maybe all that was daunting once. But now? The pride at stake is invigorating, the spotlight a dream. One word comes to Pinson’s mind: fun.
“Being in the moment, taking over the opportunity to play Duke in our home court,” Pinson said of his goals for Thursday. “This my last chance to play them here, and I want to take full advantage of it and go out here and play my heart out.”