Between the two of them, Justin Jackson is the more contemplative one, maybe the more introspective, while Joel Berry is rawer and more reactionary, one who can be driven to fury the more he watches his shots bounce awry off a rim.
And so they handled their failures, and their limited success, in different ways after North Carolina’s too-close-for-comfort comeback against Arkansas last weekend. Yes, Jackson said on Friday, after the Tar Heels’ 92-80 victory against Butler, they were simply happy to have advanced last Sunday.
Yet with that satisfaction came a hard reality, too. Jackson on Friday described the feeling after that victory against Arkansas last Sunday like so: “We’re happy that we won but, come on – we’ve got to do better.”
He was talking about himself. He was talking about Berry. They are the Tar Heels’ two leading scorers, their two best players, their two most consistently productive options on offense. And they missed 20 of their 27 shots in the second round victory against Arkansas.
Berry and Jackson looked much more like themselves – their usual selves, at least, and like the players they’ve been most of the season – against Butler. They combined for 50 points (Berry with 26, Jackson 24) and made 17 of their 31 shots from the field. They made it look easy, at times.
And yet the days leading into Friday had been difficult, and contemplative. Berry dealt with with the frustration of a 2-for-13 shooting performance against Arkansas, while he tried to recover from a twisted ankle that had him playing through pain in the final minutes on Sunday.
Jackson, meanwhile, tried to prepare himself for the brighter stage on which he thrived on Friday. Neither Berry nor Jackson performed to expectations – either external or internal – last Sunday. Neither Berry nor Jackson lacked an understanding of what a similar performance might mean for UNC.
“Me and Joel – we know, and we’ve known all year that at the end of the day, everybody has to contribute but how well we play is going to have a big effect on how well the rest of the team plays,” Jackson said.
He and Berry both scored more than 20 points for the first time in more than two months. It hadn’t happened since the Tar Heels’ victory against Florida State on Jan. 14 and that it happened again, finally, allowed UNC to build an insurmountable halftime lead against the Bulldogs.
By then the Tar Heels led 52-36, and Berry and Jackson had scored a combined 27 points – two more than they scored in 40 minutes against Arkansas. Berry made his first two 3-point attempts, Jackson two of his first three, after missing his first.
It’d been so long that Jackson and Berry had played so well, in the same game, that it might have been difficult to remember how different a team – how much better – the Tar Heels are when it happens. UNC provided a reminder on Friday.
How much more difficult is UNC to beat when Berry and Jackson play like they did on Friday?
“Really difficult,” said Theo Pinson, the junior forward, “because they sleep on guys like Kennedy and Isaiah and me and Nate and Luke. I mean, it’s hard to guard three people out there, when you’ve got to focus on Joel and Justin. You can’t help that much. And it’s tougher.”
After the Tar Heels survived against Arkansas, Jackson resumed his normal individual shooting routine. He had enough time, during a short week, to get “a little bit” of work in with Chase Bengel, the head manager who has spent many nights at the Smith Center rebounding for Jackson.
Berry, meanwhile, tried to heal. His ankle needed to mend, for one, but also his mind.
“I put a lot of myself, and sometimes it’s a bad thing, but at least it shows that I care,” Berry said. “But I have a great family. My mom and my dad do a great job helping me out, telling me to stay confident and just keep believing in myself.
“And I have great teammates who stay behind me, and just keep on encouraging me. And sometimes, even though I’m the leader, I still need some encouragement from my teammates, and I get that from them.”
From the beginning on Friday, Berry and Jackson attempted to establish themselves. They’re never passive, necessarily, but they embraced an especially aggressive approach against Butler, which had difficulty defending both players.
Jackson scored six of UNC’s first 10 points. Berry scored 10 of the Tar Heels’ first 27, and he helped ignite the 20-5 run the Tar Heels used to take control that they never relinquished.
“It feels good whenever you get it going early,” Jackson said.
For UNC, it continued to feel good throughout. It was a different feeling compared to the relief of Sunday, when the Tar Heels felt fortunate to leave Greenville, S.C., with a victory. This more resembled how UNC wants to play all the time – the pace especially.
The Tar Heels finished with 13 fastbreak points. They hadn’t scored that many since that Florida State game.
Berry and Jackson’s combined breakout came just in time. They led the Tar Heels into the South Regional championship game, where they’ll play against Kentucky on Sunday. Pinson, the junior forward, wasn’t sure why, but he said he saw this sort of thing coming.
For some reason he could sense it, he said, that Berry and Jackson would re-emerge together.
“Oh, man,” he said. “I felt it coming. I don’t know what it was before the game, but I was like, there’s something about today, I just feel it. It’s going to be special.”
For Berry and Jackson, it’d been a long time coming.