This is the time of year, Joel Berry said Thursday night after North Carolina's 91-72 victory against Virginia Tech, when the “aches and pains” start to come, when the long grind of a season begins to inflict its damage on the body and the mind.
Berry said he watched West Virginia beat No. 2 Kansas on Tuesday. Some of his other teammates watched No. 4 Kentucky lose to Tennessee. And there was another game, Berry said, and “another team went down.”
“Oh,” he said, remembering: “Villanova.”
The Wildcats, the nation's top-ranked team – and one with which Berry and his returning teammates are immensely familiar, given what happened early last April – also lost on Tuesday, against Marquette. Three top-five teams, three defeats.
And so here were the No. 9 Tar Heels on Thursday, welcoming their own challenge against unranked Virginia Tech. The Hokies had defeated Duke earlier this season and held on at Clemson, barely, earlier this week.
Berry and his teammates, meanwhile, knew what had been happening to teams ranked in the top 10. Losses by Villanova, Kansas and Kentucky – along with Florida State's against Georgia Tech on Wednesday – provided some lessons, a reminder.
“Lot of upsets,” said senior forward Kennedy Meeks. “But like coach said, this is the middle of the season and teams kind of get lackadaisical. So we're really just trying to do the total opposite of that.”
This is the time in the season, Berry acknowledged after UNC's seventh consecutive victory, when a switch flips and stakes start to rise.
The Tar Heels, who own the longest winning streak in the ACC, will enter the final weekend of January alone atop the conference.
Whether they stay there will depend on how they answer the challenges that are coming, ones expected – such as the zone defense UNC successfully vanquished Thursday – and unexpected, such as the injury junior forward Theo Pinson endured midway through the first half.
Pinson left the game about nine minutes before halftime after he “rolled” his right ankle, according to UNC officials. He didn't play again, and returned to the bench only in the final minutes with the outcome long decided.
“I sent after him to sit on the bench,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, “thinking everybody would cheer like crazy for him. I'm not a very good director because that was the same time that Justin (Jackson) made the big 3 and then I put all the walk-ons in.
“So nobody realized that Theo had come back to the bench.”
Williams didn't sound too concerned about Pinson, who missed UNC's first 16 games after breaking a bone in that foot during preseason practice. Nonetheless, Pinson's absence – and the lost opportunity to cheer his reappearance – was one of the few things that didn't go UNC's way Thursday.
Exploiting their size advantage, the Tar Heels finished with nearly twice the number of rebounds (43 to 22) as the Hokies. UNC scored 20 second-chance points for the sixth time in the past seven games. And Jackson finished with 26 points – he's making that sort of thing seem routine now.
For UNC this was an efficient, business-like dispatching of the Hokies, who were trying to claw their way out of the ACC's crowded middle.
The Tar Heels are near the midway point of their conference schedule, and who they are today could well dictate who they become in March, and beyond.
“I mean, shoot,” said Berry, who finished with 15 points and four assists. “This is what sets you apart from other teams, this stretch right here. And this is what determines the outcome of the season.”
The Tar Heels aren't immune to lulls. They proved that during an inconsistent run that began in late November and ended with a loss at Georgia Tech on Dec. 31. Since then, though, they've scored at least 85 points in all seven of their consecutive victories.
The Tar Heels have made it boring, at times, with outcomes long decided by the final minutes. That was the case during a 51-point victory against N.C. State not long ago. It was again at the midway point of the second half of Thursday’s game.
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams had called a timeout – one of several he called to quell a UNC run – with his team losing by 21 points. He wiped the sweat off his forehead when his team returned to the court.
UNC only extended its lead, which grew as large as 26 points before Roy Williams called for the walk-ons during the final minute.
Afterward Williams was asked to name the most important factor standing in the way of his team becoming great.
The answer came easily to him, after he watched Virginia Tech make 51 percent of its shots.
“If you really want to be great,” he said, “you've got to guard people better.”