Tar Heels’ Berry ready for last run with reigning champions
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Joel Berry II is ready to take any big shot North Carolina needs in his final NCAA Tournament.
The senior was last year’s most outstanding player at the Final Four after helping the Tar Heels win the national championship that had painfully eluded them in 2016. Now the first player in more than four decades to score 20 points in consecutive national title games wants one more deep run.
“I think this year for me it’s just about leaving a legacy,” Berry said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I know I’ve done a lot for this program and I know I’ve put a lot into this program. But I want to leave on a good note. I don’t want people for their last thought to be that, ‘Well you know, they won the championship in 2017 . and that was pretty much it.’”
Berry and the Tar Heels, the No. 2 seed in the West Region, earned a home-state NCAA opener against 15-seed Lipscomb on Friday in Charlotte. They are trying to join Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) as the only repeat champions since UCLA’s seven straight from 1967-73. They can also become the first to reach three straight finals since Kentucky from 1996-98.
Berry is UNC’s No. 2 scorer (17.1 points), its toughest competitor and a Cousy Award finalist as the nation’s top point guard.
The 6-foot native of Apopka, Florida, isn’t an elite NBA prospect blessed with jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism. Rather, he’s a veteran floor leader who doesn’t shy away from contact and ranks among tradition-rich program’s top 15 in both career scoring and assists.
More importantly, he plays with a determined edge that UNC (25-10) needs as it leans on a small-ball lineup — though it also led to an embarrassing preseason incident when Berry broke his hand by punching a door after losing a video game.
That edge fuels everything he does, even launching a shot in a tight game.
“If I miss it, I’m going to come back and shoot that same shot every single time,” Berry said. “And if I make it, of course I’m going to come back and shoot it.
“There are a lot of people who think about what’s going to happen if they don’t hit the shot. And I never think about that because there are a lot of people who would love to be in my position to take that shot. A lot of people don’t have the heart to be able to step up in those moments, to even try to attempt that shot.”
That mentality has worked well for him twice on the game’s biggest stage.
In 2016, he scored 20 points with four 3-pointers in the title-game loss to Villanova despite suffering a left-foot injury that had him on crutches and wearing a boot when he returned to campus the next day.
Last April, despite playing on two sprained ankles that hindered him throughout the tournament, Berry scored 22 points and four more 3s as UNC beat Gonzaga for the title.
That made him only the seventh player to score at least 20 points in back-to-back NCAA title games, a list that includes San Francisco’s Bill Russell (1955-56), UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (1967-69) and UCLA’s Bill Walton — the last before Berry in 1972-73.
“He is tough and he’s been that way ever since I’ve known him,” said senior Grayson Allen of rival Duke, a fellow Florida native who first played against Berry in the eighth grade. “If you go at him, he comes right back.
“He’s the type of guy where if he makes a mistake on the next play, he’s coming at you to get it right back.”
Berry’s edge is always there, and sometimes it rises to the surface.
Like it did during the second half of the Tar Heels’ win against Allen’s Blue Devils in Friday’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament semifinals. Berry and Duke freshman Gary Trent Jr. both got their hands on a rebound and refused to let go before Trent tried to push free as referees whistled for a jumpball.
Berry immediately turned back for a defiant staredown with Trent — who has about 6 inches and 15 pounds on Berry — and had a few words for Trent as officials stepped in.
There will likely be a couple more of those moments in the NCAA Tournament. And Berry isn’t about to back down, not with his college career down to its final games.
“I just hate when people count us out because we don’t have the so-called NBA talent on our team,” Berry said. “And that irks me so much because it’s not about having NBA talent. It’s about having guys who are coming together to compete to get one goal: and that’s to win a national championship. And if you have that, that takes care of everything else.”
AP Sports Writer Mike Fitzpatrick in New York contributed to this report.
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