By Ken Cross
So North Carolina point guard Joel Berry had two injured ankles and so much was written about this that it sounded possible that he would ride to University of Phoenix Stadium in a wheel chair for the National Championship matchup with Gonzaga.
Berry never relented. He was the tough leader that coach Roy Williams had bragged on all season. In the end, he led all scorers with 22 points as he made UNC’s only four triples in a 71-65 win over the Bulldogs. It was an ugly game which was continually marred by poor officiating, especially in a second half, that saw the clock stop so much that neither team could get in an offensive rhythm.
Berry, though, found a way in his 37 minutes as he was the catalyst who held the Tar Heels together in the first half. They trailed for most of it before slicing a Gonzaga margin that was seven on several occasions to 35-32 at the break.
“I think it was a little just gritting it out, but I said that when I came, when we were done with warm-ups, I was running to the bench and we do our regular handshakes with our coaches, and I ran by Coach and he told me, ‘Just use your legs,'” said Berry.
It was sage advice from Williams, who won his third NCAA Tournament Championship on Monday. Berry gave the Tar Heels many pick me ups in a game that changed leads 11 times and had 12 ties.
Berry came out of halftime with a layup off a steal by Isaiah Hicks and then nailed a three in a quick 8-0 Tar Heels run over the first 2:20 of the half that gave them a 40-35 lead with 17:40 remaining.
When Gonzaga fought back and took the lead on several occasions in the second half, Berry was on point and able to move his chess piece back into position to where he could capture a Zags’ chess piece.
Berry’s rehab in the pool throughout the tournament may have been one thing that helped him keep his ankles in playing condition.
“So it was times where I saw Theo going back to his room and he’s, like, I’m not even going to get me a nap. And I’m, like, ‘I gotta go down to the pool,'” said Berry of his sacrifices.
In such an arduous second half, Berry’s rehab paid off. He had an amazing run of scores from mid to late in the game that were crucial in North Carolina being able to capture the win.
“This is what we worked for and the ups and downs that we’ve had? It’s all worth it,” commented Berry, “And I can’t even describe my feeling right now, but I am just glad that I was able to do something with this team, because I felt like just the personality and what we went through and I think we just deserved it.”
With 12:37, Berry nailed a triple to give the Heels a 47-45 lead as the margins continued to flip with those seven-point Bulldogs advantages being the biggest of the night.
Berry’s biggest shot of the evening though may have been a triple that gave the Tar Heels a 62-60 lead with 4:18 remaining after Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss had scored from behind the arc on the previous Zags possession for a quick 60-59 lead.
“He’s a shooting point guard, and tonight he was 4-for-14, but the last three weeks since he had the sprained ankles he shot a terrible percentage,” said Williams, “But he was well over 40 at one point this year. It’s limited what he does very well in a game.”