Amid senior night farewells, Joel Berry of old returns in UNC’s victory over Duke

North Carolina’s Joel Berry applauds after scoring 19 points in the first half against Duke at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina’s Joel Berry applauds after scoring 19 points in the first half against Duke at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It was senior night at North Carolina and, like there is always is, there were some tears. Kennedy Meeks shed some of them after the Tar Heels’ 90-83 victory against Duke on Saturday night at the Smith Center, and he dabbed his eyes with a towel while he spoke in the moments after.

This was a night for UNC to celebrate Meeks, the forward who has found the consistency that had eluded him during his first three seasons. He finished with eight points and eight rebounds. It was a night for No. 5 UNC (26-6, 14-4 ACC) to celebrate Isaiah Hicks, who finished with 21 points and nine rebounds.

The Tar Heels recognized, too, Nate Britt, the senior guard, and Stilman White, who has finally played his final home game six years after arriving on campus, and Kanler Coker, a former football player turned member of the basketball team.

That UNC could celebrate at all afterward, though, was primarily because Joel Berry, the junior point guard, rediscovered whatever it was that made him one of the nation’s best players during the first month or two of the season. Berry then played like a dangerous man: aggressive, accurate, tough.

More recently, he’d been wondering where that version of himself had gone. It re-emerged on Saturday.

If Berry said the word “aggressive” once afterward, he said it dozens of times. It kept coming up, over and over again, when he tried to explain how he’d scored 28 points and made five 3-pointers – how he’d led the Tar Heels at the end of the regular season much like he did at the start.

“The start of the season I was being very aggressive,” said Berry, who scored more often on Saturday than he had since his 31-point performance during an overtime victory at Clemson on Jan. 3. “And then I just kind of stopped being aggressive.”

It wasn’t as though Berry had been playing poorly. He’d scored in double figures in seven of UNC’s previous eight games. Just last weekend, at Pittsburgh, Berry made four 3-pointers and finished with 19 points.

Even so, it’d been about six weeks since he’d last scored 20 points in a game. At the start of the conference season, Berry had arguably been the Tar Heels’ most important catalyst – their leader on both ends. Before Saturday it’d been a while, though, since Berry had been so assertive.

What Berry did against No. 17 Duke (23-8, 11-7) wasn’t difficult to discern. He made shots. He kept shooting.

“His first shot went in, he got a little more enthused and the second one went in, he got a little more, and the third one went in, he got a little more enthused,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “And then in the second half, I don’t think he shot very much in the second half. He didn’t shoot a single 3 in the second half. So they were trying to crowd him at the 3-point line.

“So he took it to the basket and made a couple of layups, too.”

This was, overall, the Berry of November and December and the early part of January. It was the Berry that gives the Tar Heels their greatest chances for success during the rest of March, and that version of Berry arrived just in time, too, against Duke.

For the purposes of the ACC standings, the Tar Heels’ victory against the Blue Devils meant about as little as a UNC-Duke game can mean. UNC, after all, had already clinched the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament. The Tar Heels had already won the regular-season title outright by the time tip-off arrived.

But then there was the recent history. UNC days earlier had endured an ugly 53-43 loss at Virginia, a defeat the Tar Heels quickly wanted to move past. And the Tar Heels entered the Smith Center thinking about their first game against Duke – UNC’s 86-78 loss in Durham on Feb. 9.

“We just wanted to get revenge,” Berry said, “and we just wanted to get better as a team.”

The Tar Heels clearly accomplished one of those things. They appeared to accomplish the other, as well, with Berry rediscovering his early-season form. He scored 19 of his 28 points during the first half, with several of his shots coming over Grayson Allen, Berry’s former high school AAU teammate.

Berry again rose over Allen with less than 2½ minutes remaining. Berry found a bit of room on the right side, ascended for a long 2-point jump shot, and it went in, giving the Tar Heels an 83-79 lead that only grew in the final minutes.

Hicks, who also played one of his best games in a big while, described Berry afterward as “unbelievable.” Perhaps it took one to know one, given that Hicks reemerged, as well, after what was perhaps his most difficult stretch of the season.

“Something just lit up in him,” Hicks said of Berry. “I don’t know what it was, but that is the type of thing that we have been seeing out of Justin (Jackson) lately, too. Just to finally see Joel back into it is good.”

Berry said afterward that he’d been spending more time working on his shot. And yet he always works on it, so that hasn’t been much different. Perhaps the difference on Saturday was his aggressiveness. Perhaps it was that he saw the first one go in.

That first one was a 3-pointer. And then Berry made a pull-up jumper. That’s when he knew, he said, “that it was going to be a good night.” The premonition proved correct.

When time ran out, the Tar Heels celebrated their seniors. Their tearful tributes, seniors in their final home game giving their farewells. UNC also welcomed back the Berry of old.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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