North Carolina

UNC responds to challenge in 88-71 win over Pitt

When he encounters the kind of moment he did late in the first half against Pittsburgh, Joel Berry hears a voice in his head, one that encourages him to give a little more and try harder, and one that reminds him of the importance of the little things.

It’s not a quiet voice, Berry, the North Carolina sophomore guard, said after the Tar Heels’ 88-71 victory Thursday in an ACC tournament quarterfinal at the Verizon Center. It’s not soft.

“It’s a yell in my head,” Berry said, and that voice commands him to do what he did just before halftime against the Panthers.

The Tar Heels (26-6) at the time led Pittsburgh (21-11) by three points. They’d started to recover from a mostly sluggish first half when Berry poked the ball away from James Robinson, the Panthers’ point guard. All of a sudden, it was loose, the ball bouncing away, toward mid-court.

Robinson went after it. So did Berry. And then came that voice.

“Every time a ball is bouncing, I just hear the coaches in the back of my head – we’ve got to get that 50-50 ball,” Berry said. “And they’ve been expressing that so much to where it’s like, they’re just second nature now.

“We’ve got to have those, because that can be a difference between winning and losing.”

Berry secured possession and then beat everybody to the other end of the court, where he finished the play with a layup that gave UNC a 39-35 halftime lead. After the play he flexed and released something of a roar – an exclamation of sorts that punctuated the moment.

“I was pretty hyped after I made the layup,” said Berry, who made seven of his eight attempts from the field and finished with 20 points. “Just because we needed that. When your teammates see that, it will give them a little spark. So that’s why I did it.”

In victory, top-seeded UNC advanced to play against Notre Dame, the tournament’s fifth seed, on Friday at 7 p.m. in the ACC tournament semifinals. UNC endured an 80-76 loss at Notre Dame on Feb. 6 in the team’s only meeting.

After that game, UNC coach Roy Williams questioned his team’s toughness and poise. Those things weren’t lacking on Thursday.

Berry’s steal and layup was the signature moment of the first half, a play that helped the Tar Heels seize control after they trailed 8-0 after the opening 90 seconds. The layup represented the final points of UNC’s 10-0 run just before halftime.

Later, when UNC coach Roy Williams described how his team recovered from its slow start, he first spoke of defense. Berry’s steal came after five other defensive stops.

“That basically got us back in the basketball game,” Williams said.

He has often demanded more intensity, more effort, from his team defensively. Williams has often spoke, too, of the little things that separate victory from defeat – things like controlling a loose ball or making an open shot in a critical moment.

That’s what Kenny Williams, the freshman guard, did with a little more than 8 1/2 minutes remaining in the second half. By then, Pitt had weathered UNC’s strong finish to the first half. The Panthers had come back and tied the game at 45 with less than 16 minutes remaining.

The Tar Heels tried to regain control. Berry’s 3-pointer with 10 minutes left helped, putting UNC ahead by seven. Not too long after that, after Pitt missed a shot, Williams positioned himself on the right arc and received a pass from Nate Britt, the junior guard. There was no hesitation.

“I got ready to shoot as soon as I could and let it go,” Williams said.

The shot fell. It was Williams’ first 3-pointer of the season, and it gave UNC a 66-55 lead. Williams hadn’t scored in a game in more than a month – not since UNC’s Jan. 20 victory against Wake Forest. He’d never scored more than two points against any ACC team.

And here he was, coming through with one of the most important moments in UNC’s victory. There was some symmetry between Berry’s steal and layup and Williams’ second-half 3-pointer. Both sequences helped UNC take control after Pitt had attempted to turn the game in its favor.

“The first half, it was all defense,” Marcus Paige, UNC’s senior guard, said. “We finally just decided to get into them and guard. And then the second half, they kind of made a little bit of a run at us. And we were able to get baskets and stops, so our offense was clicking at that point.

“There were similarities in the way we felt the run that they were making, and then we responded.”

During a span of about nine minutes in the second half – from when 11 1/2 minutes remained until there were 2 1/2 minutes left – UNC’s lead grew from two points to 19, its largest. During that stretch, UNC, which shot 59 percent overall, same as it did during its 85-64 victory against Pitt on Feb. 14, made nine of its 14 shots and controlled the game on both sides.

And so it ended without drama, which was a departure from UNC’s previous two games – close wins against Duke and Syracuse.

Brice Johnson, the senior forward, finished the victory against Pitt with 19 points and 10 rebounds, his 20th double-double of the season. Justin Jackson (11 points) and Isaiah Hicks (10) joined Berry and Johnson in double figures.

The final score suggested it had been an easy victory for UNC, but it wasn’t, necessarily. The Tar Heels were at their best when challenged, and when Williams made his 3 and Berry heard a familiar voice.