The tears came, as promised.
Roy Williams couldn’t make it through “Senior Night” for Joel Berry and Theo Pinson without crying. Neither could Berry or Pinson and the heartbreaking loss to Miami, 91-88 at the buzzer, was only a minor reason for the emotional display.
“From the bottom of my heart, I do love you,” Williams said on the court after the game to Berry and Pinson after the seniors had made their traditional speeches to the disappointed but appreciative Smith Center crowd.
Berry, who equaled a career-high with 31 points, had to fight back tears in the pregame senior introductions. Pinson, who basically guaranteed on Monday that he would cry, did so when Berry handed off the microphone for his postgame speech.
“I bet you never thought there would be a time where I didn’t want to talk?” Pinson joked.
The loss was a cruel closing chapter to their home careers, which will be remembered for 52 wins, not the nine losses. Even if Miami’s game-winner from Ja’Quan Newton, from about 40 feet, was a reminiscent of a different buzzer-beater — Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer to give Villanova the national title in 2016.
Jenkins’ shot was actually replayed in Berry’s senior video before the game. UNC has somehow figured out a way to own that moment. After all, these seniors used it as fuel to come back and win the 2017 national title.
“I apologize for the Villanova game,” Berry said on the court during his speech. “But we came back and we got it for you guys.”
Combined with enduring the NCAA investigation into a long-running academic scandal at the school, Berry and Pinson have been through a lot. Williams said the 2014 recruiting class, along with Justin Jackson, was the most “significant recruiting class” in the last 50 years at UNC. That’s debatable but the sincerity of Williams’ emotions were not.
Even after the lengthy postgame comments on the court, he couldn’t help but cry again when he got to the media room near midnight on Tuesday.
“You realize how fortunate I feel to coach Joel Berry and Theo Pinson for four years?” Williams said. “It doesn’t get much better than that guys.”
It wasn’t all tears. Pinson, ever the card, managed to crack a few jokes. He zinged assistant coach Steve Robinson, junior guard Kenny Williams and junior wing Cam Johnson.
“I see why you left Pitt,” Pinson said to Johnson, a graduate transfer from Pitt, which has an 0-17 ACC record. “I’m going to make a joke,”
Pinson quickly added after the crowd’s reaction. “That’s what I do.”
Johnson, who has only been at UNC for this season with Berry and Pinson, was crushed after the game.
“I really, really hate that we did not win this game for Joel and Theo’s sake,” said Johnson, who finished with 20 points. “This is one that we really wanted.”
It was and that’s the danger in Senior Night games. You can want it too much and get out of your game. That’s what happened midway through the first half when Miami took control.
The start of the second half was an out-of-body experience for a UNC team that had not lost in February.
“You want to do it so much for the seniors when you are younger,” said Pinson, who scored 12 points and finished with a career-high 11 assists. “When you are the senior, it’s definitely harder.”
The ending was, no doubt, despite a furious comeback and an incredible shot from Berry with 4.1 seconds left. The seniors did not end their home careers with a win but there’s still plenty of season left.
“We’re not done yet,” Pinson promised.