When North Carolina returned home after its defeat at Miami on Saturday, Joel Berry knew where he wanted to go and knew he wanted to be there alone. No teammates. No managers or coaches. The Tar Heels had lost and Berry had played poorly, and on the inside the anger simmered.
“So intense,” Justin Jackson, the Tar Heels' junior forward, said of Berry on Tuesday night after UNC's 80-78 victory against Pittsburgh. “... With how intense he is, I think he can sometimes get more down on himself than he probably should. But at times that helps.”
It helped on Tuesday, for instance, after a couple of marathon, solo shooting sessions helped Berry regain his touch, and his spirt. The Tar Heels' victory against the Panthers at the Smith Center will be remembered for how close it came – only a two-point win against the ACC's last-place team.
And yet it easily could have been a stunning loss, and perhaps would have been, if not for Berry's turnaround – from two points on 0-for-8 shooting at Miami to 19 points and five 3-pointers against Pitt, which was in it until its final shot, a 3-point attempt from Jamel Artis, went awry at the buzzer.
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Afterward UNC coach Roy Williams bemoaned his team's defense, which allowed Pitt to shoot 55.6 percent. Williams surmised that some of the media members covering his team, not the most athletic bunch, might have been as comfortable at the Smith Center free throw line as UNC's post players were guarding the Panthers' smaller players on the perimeter.
“Some how, some way,” Williams said, “I've got to figure out a way to do a better job coaching on the defensive end of the floor.”
If defense nearly cost the Tar Heels (20-4, 8-2 ACC) a victory then Jackson, who finished with 20 points, and Berry preserved it. Berry's resurgence was especially encouraging, given what happened just days earlier in South Florida.
His performance at Miami was his worst of the season, and in the middle of it he collected a technical foul amid an uncharacteristic verbal outburst. Berry acknowledged he allowed emotion to overcome his judgment when he said something an official didn't appreciate.
Back in Chapel Hill on Saturday night, Berry channeled his frustration. He walked into the Smith Center, empty and quiet, and connected his phone to the sound system. He rolled in an apparatus he described as “the gun,” which fed him passes and tracked his shooting percentage.
And he remained in the gym, alone, until he attempted 500 shots. All the while the musical playlist on his phone sounded through the Smith Center speakers, Berry in his own world. He said he attempted to correct his mental energy, and he envisioned his shots going in – unlike the scene, eight times over, at Miami.
“Sometimes you can have all these good games and you get on a little high,” said Berry, who has played well enough this season to become a contender for ACC Player of the Year honors. “So that was one of my lows and it kind of made me refocus. It's not a bad thing but at the time it was because of how I played.
“But it's just life. Sometimes you have lows and it kind of gets you back on track.”
That was Berry attempting to find the right track, hoisting those 500 shots. He came back the next day, on Sunday, and did it again. Except once he reached 500 shot attempts, Berry said he attempted 100 more.
The setting was the same: the otherwise empty Smith Center, the shooting machine, his music playing through the speakers. Berry during his three seasons at UNC has in some ways become the Tar Heels' emotional pulse. He doesn't provide the electrical current that Theo Pinson does, yet Berry's intensity is likely unmatched.
Berry didn't have it on Saturday. Then again, Williams didn't recognize much of anything about Berry.
“The guy who showed up on Saturday was not Joel Berry,” Williams said. “And I thought we had some alien that climbed up in his body. But I think it was Joel at pregame, at shoot-around today.”
Berry needed all of 13 seconds on Tuesday to score more points against Pittsburgh (12-10, 1-8) than he scored all of Saturday at Miami. His first 3-point attempt against the Panthers went in, and all five of his 3s came in the first 24 minutes.
As unexpected as it was, the Tar Heels needed all of those points. They needed Berry's three-point play, especially, with 98 seconds remaining. Those points came the old-fashioned way – on a layup and a free throw – and the layup brought an end to an ugly stretch in which UNC missed nine consecutive shots from the field.
The Tar Heels led by four then but four times during the final 90 seconds Pitt cut UNC's lead to either one point or two. It wasn't over until the Panthers missed their final shot, and yet in some ways UNC's victory began with Berry's first shots, and the hundreds that followed, on Saturday and Sunday.
Williams said Berry “gets so mad at himself” when he plays like he did at Miami. Jackson described the intensity. Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, described the fight: “Coach always says that's the thing he loves about Joel the most – he's a fighter.”
The Tar Heels needed some fight on Tuesday, and needed it perhaps more than anybody could have anticipated. After a couple of long, lonely sessions in this same building, Berry came prepared to provide it.