Berry overcomes injuries to lead Tar Heels to NCAA title
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Joel Berry II kept battling, both against the pain of ankle injuries and the frustration brimming from an off-target shot that had plagued him throughout the NCAA Tournament.
Turns out, maybe the junior point guard was just saving it all for one big moment: the chance to give North Carolina the national championship that had slipped so painfully away a year earlier.
Berry scored a game-high 22 points, including four 3-pointers, to help the Tar Heels rally in the final 2 minutes to beat Gonzaga 71-65 in Monday’s title game.
Berry finished just 7 for 19 from the field, 4 for 13 from 3-point range and 4 of 8 from the line. But it wasn’t about his shooting percentages; it was the fact he made big — sometimes desperately needed — shots en route to scoring 13 points after halftime to be named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
“I mean, I’m just emotionally drained just because I put my all into this,” Berry said. “Just the things I’ve been going through the last couple of weeks: not being 100 percent, not shooting the ball like I wanted to, struggling from the 3-point line, struggling from the free-throw line, which is a shock to myself.
“I put it all out there tonight. I’m glad I did because now we’re national champions.”
Berry was shooting just 28 percent (17 of 60) in the first five tournament games for UNC (33-7), including 8 for 34 (24 percent) from 3-point range. And at least some of that could be attributable to the ankle injuries.
First, he rolled his right ankle in a 1-vs-16 rout of Texas Southern in the first round. Then, in the Elite Eight against Kentucky, Berry rolled his left ankle on a first-half drive to the basket.
It quickly became a daily topic for every media session for the Tar Heels, and even a familiar bit of injury drama at the point going back to injuries that hobbled Ty Lawson (toe) at the start of a tournament run to the 2009 title and sidelined Kendall Marshall (broken wrist) to derail a Final Four bid in 2012.
Coach Roy Williams had at least raised the possibility of whether Berry would be ready to play early in the week, though it seemed unlikely that the guy who might be the Tar Heels’ toughest competitor wouldn’t give it a go.
“He’s been in the pool, hot tub, cold tub,” said Williams, who passed his late mentor Dean Smith by winning a third NCAA championship. “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 got to play. And his toughness, I think, everybody on our club picked up on that. I think it was important to everybody.”
His teammates kept insisting Berry would be ready. They were right.
“Joel’s an extremely tough guy,” senior Nate Britt said. “I think that’s why when you guys asked us about him, none of us were worried because we know how tough he is and we know as a team how important getting here and winning this game was. ... Joel’s been the toughest guy on our team for the last two years. Like I said, nothing would hold him back.”
After all, he scored 20 points with four 3-pointers in last year’s last-second loss to Villanova in the national title game, then showed up the next day for the team’s return to campus on crutches with his left foot in a boot due to an injury suffered sometime during that game.
The problem was Berry had seemed to be trending in the wrong direction in this year’s tournament. He had bounced back from a second-round struggle against Arkansas with 26 points against Butler in the Sweet 16, but he had to fight through the Kentucky game then struggled mightily in the national semifinals against Oregon.
Berry said the injuries were affecting the lift on his shot, and it showed against the Ducks. He missed 12 of 14 shots, leaving Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks to carry the attack.
But with Jackson struggling with his shot and the Tar Heels getting little inside Monday night, Berry responded in a big way.
Berry’s last 3 gave UNC a 62-60 lead with 4:18 left. He didn’t hit another shot, but it ultimately didn’t matter; he had essentially bought UNC time until Jackson and Isaiah Hicks finally mustered a couple of tough baskets during the Tar Heels’ game-closing 8-0 run over the final 1:53 of the game that helped them outlast an opponent that had lost just once all season.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap