UNC’s Joel Berry wills Tar Heels to victory at Clemson

Days earlier Joel Berry, the North Carolina junior point guard, hadn't felt like himself. Then again none of his teammates really had, either, during their double-digit loss at Georgia Tech on the first Saturday of ACC play.

It had been a miserable day for Berry and the Tar Heels, and a miserable defeat. And for a time here on Tuesday night at Clemson, some of that familiar misery surrounded UNC again, what with all the missed shots and the mounting frustration and score, uncomfortably close thoughout.

And then with about 13 ½ minutes remaining here at Littlejohn Coliseum on Tuesday, Berry made a 3-pointer – a long one, deep in the corner in front of the Tar Heels bench. He flexed his arms and he looked back at his teammates sitting there, and he screamed.

If there was a signature moment during UNC's 89-86 overtime victory against Clemson, perhaps that was it: Berry's first 3-pointer during a run of five of them, and then the emotional outburst that followed – a scene that, in an instant, conveyed a message. What kind of message?

Berry explained in the moments after. First, he spoke of a different message.

“You know, our coaches said we didn't have any passion,” Berry said, at first. “Sometimes I show a lot of passion, and I just wanted to show that if I'm out there yelling and fist-pumping, and trying to get up and guard, that just sends it throughout the whole team.

“So I just turned around and I just – I just screamed. And I think that just helped us a lot.”

Maybe not the scream itself, necessarily. But the meaning behind it, and its message.

Moments later Berry altered his post-shot celebration. After the second of his five second-half 3-pointers, he turned quickly toward the left sideline and spread his arms wide. Soon, Berry seemed too in the moment to offer much of a reaction after the 3s kept coming.

Before Tuesday night, Berry had never scored more than 24 points in a college game. Twenty-one of his 31 points came in the second half, though, and during one stretch he accounted for 19 of the Tar Heels' 23 points.

He looked much more like early-season Berry than at-Georgia-Tech Berry. During that loss on Saturday, when UNC shot 33.3 percent, he missed 10 of his 13 attempts from the field. He played as though he might have still been affected by an illness that limited him last week.

“I didn't have (any) passion – no nothing for it,” Berry said on Tuesday. “So today I tried to have that.”

The Tar Heels still needed overtime. And Roy Williams, the UNC coach, was quick to point out afterward that in addition to all the shots Berry made in the second half, he committed a costly turnover on UNC's second-to-last possession in regulation.

Moments before that turnover, the Tigers, led by Jaron Blossomgame’s 24 points, had tied the score at 77 with Marcquise Reed's 3-pointer with 22 seconds remaining. Williams didn't call a timeout – he rarely does in those kinds of situations – and Berry pushed ahead, attempting a high-risk pass that resulted in a turnover.

Williams said he reminded Berry of it afterward, that “if you're a great player,” that sort of play can't happen. And yet Berry redeemed himself, if he needed to do such a thing, early in overtime, turning a steal into a layup that quickly tied the score at 79 with about four minutes remaining.

Clemson reclaimed the lead, once, before UNC took it back, for good, with Kennedy Meeks' layup with 71 seconds remaining. And then the Tar Heels held on, escaping Littlejohn Coliseum with the kind of victory they couldn't secure at other points during the first two months of the season.

“Against Indiana we had a chance to come back, and then take the lead – we didn't do it there,” Berry said. “Against Kentucky we had the lead, gave it up. So tonight, to be able to – even though it went into overtime – to be able to come out with that win and just know that we can keep that lead, that was good for us.”

It was a victory that was good for Berry, especially. After he scored 23 points during UNC's 103-100 loss against Kentucky on Dec. 17, Berry didn't score more than 11 points in any of UNC's past three games.

Entering Tuesday night, he'd made seven of his previous 26 attempts from the field, and five of his previous 19 3-point attempts. Then Berry made five 3-pointers in the span of about seven minutes in the middle of the second half. The way Berry was playing, Williams couldn't take him off the floor.

“I kept asking Joel if he was all right,” Williams said. “It's been a long time since I've had anybody play 41 minutes.”

Berry played that many on Tuesday, though – none of them more important than those seven minutes that began with his scream, and ended with some of his teammates shaking their heads at what they were witnessing.

Afterward some of them spoke of a look they saw in Berry's eye. It had been missing lately, before Tuesday.

“That spurt that he went on was pretty amazing,” said Justin Jackson, who finished with 18 points. “But we know that's Joel Berry.”

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