UNC’s Joel Berry, always a believer, crosses national title off to-do list

UNC point guard Joel Berry had the word “believe” tattoed onto his left arm -- a reminder, he said on Monday, after the Tar Heels national championship victory against Gonzaga.
UNC point guard Joel Berry had the word “believe” tattoed onto his left arm -- a reminder, he said on Monday, after the Tar Heels national championship victory against Gonzaga. cliddy@newsobsever.com

Joel Berry said he’d wait until he arrived back home to cross the final item off of his to-do list. He wanted to do it at home, Berry said, “because that’s where it started.”

That’s where he spent days and nights envisioning what he wanted to accomplish at North Carolina. He wrote down a list of goals, some of them more individual-oriented, some of them more about the team – none of them more important than the last one: win a national championship.

The Tar Heels did that on Monday night with a 71-65 victory against Gonzaga. Berry, the junior point guard, earned Most Outstanding Player honors of the Final Four after he scored 22 points on Monday, and after he helped lead UNC to victory while playing on two bad ankles.

For weeks Berry had played through pain. He sprained his right ankle in a 39-point victory against Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He twisted his left ankle during a victory against Kentucky in the South Regional championship game.

The injuries limited his production, his ability to contribute in measurable ways. Berry during his team’s 77-76 victory against Oregon in a national semifinal on Saturday night missed 12 of his 14 attempts from the field, and finished with 11 points.

His performance, uncharacteristic relative to the success he experienced throughout much of the season, prompted the expected questions: How much were his ankles bothering him? Would they hinder him from playing more effectively on Monday?

By the end of UNC’s championship victory, Berry’s teammates were receiving other questions: When did they realize that he’d be more like himself against Gonzaga? When did they start to know that Berry’s ankles wouldn’t bother him as much as they had been bothering him?

Justin Jackson, the junior forward and one of Berry’s classmates, didn’t know the answers to those questions. Jackson knew one thing, though:

“I mean, it’s the national championship game,” he said. “We were joking, and we were saying, if your toe falls off, tape it. And get back out there and play. And the type of competitor that he is, and the type of player that we know he is -- we pretty much knew it wasn’t going to affect him.”

In many ways Berry came to personify the grit that carried the Tar Heels to their sixth NCAA tournament championship. Good or bad, as Berry went during the NCAA tournament – and often during the regular season before it – so went the Tar Heels.

This wasn’t a pretty NCAA tournament for UNC. It wasn’t an easy one, either.

The same could be said for Berry, who alternated periods of extended treatment and rest with the occasional full practice. At times on Monday night, it was a struggle again.

Berry missed 12 of his 19 attempts from the field. He missed nine of his 13 3-point attempts. He made only four of his eight free throws, after missing two in a row in the final seconds of the one-point victory against Oregon on Saturday night. And yet despite all of that, he continued to be a catalyst.

“I didn’t shoot as well as I wanted to from the free throw line, but I think I made up for it with my hustle and just my heart, and just giving it my all,” Berry said.

Berry has never lacked for hustle. He’s built a reputation for playing with heart.

Earlier in the NCAA tournament, during the victory against Kentucky in the South Regional championship, Berry played for 33 minutes – most of those on two bad ankles, and all of them on at least one. After that game, like he has several others recently, Berry spoke of faith.

He spoke of the word tattooed onto his left arm: “Believe.” It’s in big, cursive letters, and Berry doesn’t mind showing it off because he’s proud of it, even if he has never been much of a tattoo guy. Berry had it done before the start of last season. He wanted the constant reminder close by.

“My parents aren’t big fans of tattoos, but I told my parents, I was like – that word means so much to me,” Berry said. “And it’s something that I want to be able to look down and see, no matter what. And I’m not a big fan of tattoos, and if I do get a tattoo, it means something to me.

“And this, right here, has got me throughout this whole season.”

He pointed to it again, that single word on his arm. Before the national championship game, Berry said he heard his mom whistle from the stands. Berry said he knows her whistle well. When he was younger it might mean that he was in trouble, he said. Now, on Monday, his mom just wanted his attention.

Berry looked up. He said members of his family lifted up their arms, and referenced “believe.” And so he believed on Monday night. He believed, perhaps most important, he’d be able to play through the continued discomfort of his ankle injuries -- that he’d play more like himself than he had lately.

There was only one game left. He’d made it this far.

“He’s been in the pool, hot tub, cold tub,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of Berry on Monday night. “They’ve been massaging it, doing everything they can possibly do, four and five times a day.

“But the games are going to be played. We can’t get a delay and say we’re not ready. You’ve gotta play. And his toughness, I think, everybody on our club picked up on that.”

Now Berry will become the second member of this team whose jersey number will be honored in the Smith Center rafters. Jackson’s No. 44 will be there because he earned both ACC Player of the Year and consensus All-American honors.

Berry’s No. 2 will be there because he earned the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player award. Sean May, the former center who won the same award when UNC won the national championship in 2005, tried to impart some wisdom on Berry before tip-off on Monday.

“Big May told me, leave my legacy tonight,” Berry said. “And I think I did tonight. To be up there in the rafters, when I walk out in the gym, I look up there every day and I try to see who’s up there.”

Now one day people will look up there and see Berry’s name. They’ll see Jackson’s.

They’ll see a 2017 national championship banner on the other side. Berry, meanwhile, won’t be seeing that on his to-do list, unless he amends it. As it is, the list already needs some editing. The national championship Berry long sought is no longer a goal -- it’s a reality.

“When I get back home,” Berry said, one of the championship nets hanging around his neck, “I’m going to sit at my desk, I’m going to just cross it off.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter