Joel Berry sat on the bench, “just itching,” he said later, to be back on the court, to have the ball in his hands, to have a chance to do anything at all. Instead all he could do was sit there and watch North Carolina’s demise.
Berry is the Tar Heels’ junior point guard, the conductor of their offense and perhaps the one player most responsible for their defensive success. When he committed his fourth foul on Friday night against Duke, the Tar Heels held an eight-point lead.
He left the game with about 15 minutes remaining, and UNC’s lead grew to 11 points, and then to 13. And then, well – and then it all unraveled, quickly, while Berry watched the Tar Heels crumble on their way to a 93-83 defeat in the ACC tournament semifinals.
For so long at the Barclays Center, it looked like UNC (27-7), the tournament’s top seed, was on its way to its third consecutive ACC tournament championship game appearance. UNC led by as many as 13 points in the first half, and by 13 again with less than 14 minutes remaining.
The first 26 minutes, the Tar Heels often scored at will inside. Their offense looked like it’s designed.
But then Berry committed his fourth foul. Points became scarcer. Duke (26-8) began a relentless run.
“It was brutal,” said Berry, who finished with 10 points. “And I hate that I was on the bench. And I just wanted to be out there. As they came back, I was just itching – I wanted to be out there so bad because I just like to compete, and I had those four fouls.”
The Tar Heels’ defeat had roots in several causes. They lost because during the final 14 minutes, they didn’t score with nearly as much efficiency on the inside as they did during the first 26 minutes. They lost, too, because they made only 28.6 percent of their shots in the second half. They lost because Duke went 33-for-37 from the free-throw line while the Tar Heels attempted only 18 free throws.
And they lost, perhaps most of all, because Duke played one of its finest 14-minute stretches of its season. The Blue Devils in those moments appeared to be every bit the team everyone expected them to be back in the preseason, when Duke was the favorite to win the national championship.
All of those things, combined, cost UNC on Friday night. And yet what hurt the Tar Heels most of all was clear enough: It was that Berry, one of the team’s unquestioned leaders, could do nothing but watch during the game’s decisive 10 minutes.
During those 10 minutes, Duke outscored UNC 29-14. Even that margin, though, belied Duke’s dominance.
After Berry’s departure, the Tar Heels managed to score five quick points – the final two of which came on Kennedy Meeks’ layup with less than 14 minutes to play. UNC led 61-48 at the time. From there, Duke went on a 29-9 run, and UNC trailed 77-70 when Berry reentered with about five minutes remaining.
“That just shows you how much Joel means to us,” Meeks said, “with him being out of the game. He’s a good defensive player and an even better offensive player, and for him to be missing definitely kind of hurts a little bit.”
That was something of an understatement. During the stretch when Berry was out the offense became “stagnant,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, “and our whole defense was bad.” Without Berry, UNC failed to work the ball to the inside. It settled for jump shots. The defense appeared out of sync, too.
And yet Williams didn’t want to use Berry’s foul trouble as an excuse, either.
“That takes away what Duke did,” he said. “I really believe that. I don’t want to use any excuses. North Carolina was still playing Duke. Nate did some good things.”
That’d be Nate Britt, the Tar Heels’ senior point guard and the first point guard reserve off the bench. Britt has experienced his share of meaningful moments during his four seasons at UNC. He has started at times. Usually, he has been a valuable contributor off of the bench.
And when he entered the game amid Berry’s foul trouble, Britt didn’t play poorly against Duke. He didn’t commit a turnover. He scored eight points. At times, he was the only player who successfully penetrated the Blue Devils defense and generated close shot opportunities.
Still, even Britt understood the obvious. He understood how everything changed without Berry.
“Things did change, and we’re definitely used to having Joel out there for the majority of the game,” Britt said, “whether it be us playing together or him being in and me being out. So I think that did change the dynamic of our offense a bit, and as well as our defense.”
Britt knew what people might say: That UNC’s collapse began when he had to play in place of Berry.
“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Britt said. “I think I have confidence in myself, my teammates have confidence in me, and coach stuck with me when Joel was in foul trouble, and I think I was playing pretty confident. So I’m not at all upset by people saying that or anything like that.”
Across the locker room, meanwhile, Berry still appeared frustrated by the circumstances. It had been a long night. Less than two minutes into the second half, after he’d committed his third foul, the coaching staff attempted to calm him.
Berry was visibly upset with that foul call. Silently, he fumed.
C.B. McGrath, one of UNC’s assistant coaches, told Berry to “just play,” and three minutes later Berry committed his fourth foul. When he made his way back to the bench, Williams leaned over in front of him and Williams spoke while Berry listened.
And then Berry remained there, on the bench, for the next 10 minutes and six seconds. All he could do was watch the carnage and wait to go back in, and he acknowledged that he wished he could have reentered the game sooner. Then again, he also understood how his night was going.
“You never know,” Berry said. “How the game was going, could have bumped somebody and they would have called a foul.”