It's all the time no one was watching that sticks with Joel Berry. All the shots lofted in an empty Smith Center. All the sprints run from one baseline to the other, the stands pushed back. That's what crossed his mind as he left the court Monday. The next time he does it, it'll be the last.
The North Carolina careers of Berry and Theo Pinson cover such an eventful stretch of Tar Heels basketball history that they seem longer than three years and change. Berry's ankle drama last postseason alone occupies its own little memory block in school history. But they have only one game left in the Smith Center, two weeks from now against Miami, and it took everything they had to ensure a North Carolina win Monday, the Tar Heels' third in five days, 83-66 over Notre Dame.
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“There's plenty of times I've walked out on that court and I was struggling and things weren't going my way,” Berry said. “I just think about that each and every time, how much time and effort I put in on that court by myself. It's just crazy that one game is left and that senior night is going to be real emotional for me.
“I'm just trying to do my best to soak everything in and enjoy this team and enjoy what's going on and trying to do my best to lead this team back to where we want to be. That's making another Final Four, and I think we have the team to do that.”
After two Final Fours, an ACC title and a national championship, Berry and Pinson are three weeks away from their last postseason. Berry has worked through shooting slumps and a losing encounter with a door, while Pinson missed big chunks of two seasons with foot injuries. They have been part of the furniture in Chapel Hill for so long that it's a little hard to believe their careers are coming to an end.
It's equally hard to believe this North Carolina season is already almost at an end. The Tar Heels have taken a long, difficult and indirect route to this point, but they're finally playing their best basketball when it matters. That was true in microcosm Monday, with North Carolina staggering into the second half but finishing strong.
Notre Dame, which lost all three of its trips to the Triangle this season by a combined 57 points, hung tough for a good chunk of the second half and had John Mooney shooting three free throws while down four points with 6:49 to go. Mooney, who was 6-for-6 from 3-point range, missed all three, the Irish deflated and the Tar Heels pounced.
North Carolina closed out the game on a 20-7 run after Mooney's swinging strikeout. Pinson had seven of those, Berry had four and Cam Johnson had four, two coming on a dunk thrown down on top of Rex Pflueger to conclude an unusually good week of in-your-face dunks in the Triangle.
Berry carried the Tar Heels through the sluggish first half despite a pregame dental emergency, which earned him “tough little nut” status from Roy Williams; Pinson was the fulcrum at both ends of the court in the second. Berry finished with a game-high 21 points, while Pinson had 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
“He's got a bad tooth,” Williams said of Berry, “but he's got a big heart.”
“My teeth are fine,” Pinson affirmed.
This is to be expected at this point. The Tar Heels aren't going to get better without their two seniors leading the way, especially on a night when a weary Luke Maye struggled mightily. But it's also as much about the others following as those two leading, and the Tar Heels are finally playing what Berry proudly referred to as “Carolina basketball,” even if only when it mattered Monday, not entirely unexpected given the rigors of the Tar Heels' recent schedule.
“Me and Theo are the leaders of this team and we're trying to do our best, no matter what, to try and lead these guys,” Berry said. “They're coming right along, and you've got to give props to them too, because they've put in time and work just like we have.”
Still, their experience is invaluable. They have helped integrate Johnson into the mix, something that looked anything but assured just two weeks ago. Williams said he ranted and raved at halftime with the kind of profanity he normally eschews, which may have been shocking to the younger players, but not the older ones, Berry said.
There was one second-half sequence, with Notre Dame within one, where Pinson drove the lane and draw a foul and made both free throws, then singlehandedly defused what would have been an open layup for Austin Torres at the other end. They were both plays of individual initiative, by a player who knew they were needed, who knew his chances to have that kind of impact are increasingly limited.
“Coming into the game, it was hard for me to just even think that I've got two more games,” Pinson said. “I just wanted to go out there and give everything I had. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it a little bit. I'm almost up, my time's almost up.”
Not yet though. After their busy stretch, the Tar Heels are off until Saturday. They play two games on the road, then get another week off before senior night. Then Duke. Then the ACC tournament. And beyond. There's a lot of work left to do. Berry and Pinson aren't done yet. But after four long years, they're finally getting close. One last home game awaits. Then one last March.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock