Joel Berry scored a game-high 23 points in North Carolina’s win at Louisville on Saturday.
The senior guard made five 3-pointers, matched a career-high with eight rebounds and, for good measure, chipped in five assists as the Tar Heels picked up a 93-76 road win.
But none of the above qualified as Berry’s favorite stat from the Tar Heels’ fifth straight ACC win. The one block on Berry’s stat sheet, with 2:31 left in the game, did.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I know, God almighty, guys that’s all he talked about in the locker room,” coach Roy Williams said. “He’s yelling ‘rim protector’ and all this kind of junk.”
Berry said the hustle involved was why he liked the play but the height discrepancy helped make it memorable, too. Berry, who is listed at 6-foot, chased down Louisville forward Ray Spalding, who is 6-10.
The sequence started with missed step-back jumper by Berry from the right elbow with 2:38 left. Deng Adel got the defensive rebound for Louisville and then hit Spalding with a long pass to the other end of the floor.
Berry was able to chase Spalding down and contest the shot when Spalding went up, with two hands on the ball, for an apparent dunk.
Berry jumped and was able to knock the ball out of Spalding’s before he could get to the rim.
“I compete all the time,” Berry said. “I don’t care how big you are. I feel like my heart and my hustle — just the way I compete — can make up for the height loss.”
UNC was up 83-75 when Berry blocked Spalding’s shot. Two points there would have brought Louisville closer to the lead than at any other point in the second half.
UNC forward Luke Maye followed up Berry’s block with a 3-pointer to give UNC an 86-75 cushion and complete a five-point swing.
“That’s the difference between winning and losing,” Berry said. “I just tried to make a play on it. Actually it was my fault, I was supposed to get back and stop that pass.”
Those are the kind of hustle plays Berry’s teammates expect from the hyper-competitive senior. This is the same guy, after all, who broke a bone in his hand in October after punching a door after a loss in a video game.
“Joel is the most competitive guy on our team,” Maye said.
“He’s one of our best defenders and he really guards the ball really well. To have him make a play like that, a game-changing play, it was just huge for us.”
Berry made more of his conventional plays for the Tar Heels in the first half. UNC jumped out to a 40-21 lead in the first 13 minutes and Berry was burying 3s.
Berry was 4-of-10 from the 3-point line and had 18 points in the first half. His rebounding also helped the Heels finish with a 44-32 edge on the glass.
“He has been going and rebounding the ball on the defensive boards,” Williams said. “He has been getting involved more, doing that for us. He’s had nine or 10 blocks for us this year.
“That was a heck of a play but I think he sort of sneaked up on the guy, too.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio