CHAPEL HILL — Who were those Tar Heels who lost at Georgia Tech? A group playing while its leader, Joel Berry II, recovered from a stomach virus.
North Carolina showed how dominant it can be with a fully healthy Berry in a 107–56 thrashing of N.C. State on Sunday, the largest ACC victory margin in school history, this coming after his 31-performance against Clemson. In addition, though, his backup Seventh Woods seems to have shaken his ills in what has been a bumpy season, producing some of his best minutes of the season.
The latter had something to do with why Berry was mostly watching and enjoying the show in the second half.
It’s all about passion for Berry. He couldn’t muster much of that when he didn’t eat the day before and the day of the Monmouth game while taking IVs, and then still didn’t feel well three days later in Atlanta.
“I was just trying to get my energy back,” said Berry, who had 19 points, five assists, five rebounds and two steals against the Wolfpack. “It’s hard to go and play without eating.”
A fully healthy Berry is dangerous enough, but there was plenty to feed his passion Sunday. Some of the pregame talk was that he would be on the short end of his first matchup against likely one-and-done Wolfpack freshman Dennis Smith Jr. That helped him produce a particularly spirited effort.
Berry admitted he had some satisfaction in getting the better of it against Smith, who got into early foul trouble and finished with 11 points, five assists and six turnovers.
“There is some [satisfaction], just because I’m a competitive person and I don’t want anyone saying that someone’s better than I am, and that’s why I had a little edge today and I always go out with an edge. Everybody wanted to make it a one-on-one matchup. So, if everyone wanted that, I felt like I wanted the edge on him and I did that today.”
Smith had three points, three fouls and four turnovers in the first half when the Tar Heels all but put the game away. N.C. State equalled UNC’s halftime point total of 56 with its game total.
“I didn’t get caught up in the one-on-one matchup at all, I just did my job of staying in front of him,” Berry said. “He’s their playmaker on their team, so I did my best to keep him out of the lane and keep him from creating for the other players.”
It was obvious to Berry that Smith was getting frustrated, which Berry said was the Tar Heels’ goal.
“When I heard him out there complaining to his players, ‘you got to be there!’ I just knew we were in his head, and that’s what we wanted to do,” Berry said. “He was the one making the mistakes, but he was trying to tell everybody else, ‘that was your fault.’ So when I heard that, I was like, ‘we got him now.’ ”
When Berry found his shooting stroke from the perimeter, he ran by the N.C. State bench and let them know about it.
“I just told them, ‘y’all better cover me because, I mean, I had already hit one 3 and then came back and hit a second one so, I was like, ‘y’all better cover me before I get it going,’ ” Berry said. “They didn’t say anything. I was running back down the court and the official told me ‘don’t do that,’ so I was like, ‘that’s my fault.’ ”
That was particularly surprising after Clemson coach Brad Brownell was upset, reportedly because of chirping a UNC player did in the direction of the Tigers’ bench.
“I usually don’t do that, and I know coach doesn’t want us to do that either, but I was just fired up,” Berry said. “I was just ready to play today. I was ready to play yesterday. I just tried to stay focused. I was just fired up and I was ready to play.”
Coach Roy Williams has always thought of N.C. State as being more of UNC’s rival than Duke, and that sentiment clearly rubbed off on Berry. Berry says he hasn’t quite developed a hatred for N.C. State, but he really wants to beat the Wolfpack.
“I had a taste for the Duke [rivalry] because I always watched that,” Berry said of his view while growing up in Florida. “But then once I got here, I realized how a lot of people really don’t like N.C. State. And, to tell you the truth, I think there’s more of hatred for N.C. State than it is for Duke, in my opinion. We still don’t like Duke, but I feel like a lot of people really don’t like N.C. State.”
The passion made its way to the court with tough defense that forced the Wolfpack into 15 of its 26 turnovers (the most UNC has forced or N.C. State has committed this season) in the first half to ignite the transition game. UNC scored a season-high
37 points off turnovers and a season-high 39 field goals.
“When we bring the energy and the passion, it’s hard to stop us, especially when we’re shooting the ball the way we did and playing defense,” said Berry after the Tar Heels shot 49.4% from the floor and 44.4% from 3-point range. “We can’t always expect our crowd to bring it out, we have to do it within.”
Carolina was as crisp on the fast break as it has been all season, making the right decisions and the right passes, with Berry leading the way. Kennedy Meeks, who scored nine points, even showed some guard skills with a steal and a layup in transition.
“I think we’ve done a better job in practice of coach getting us up and down trying to get us to score more on our primary offense and our secondary, and I think we did a great job of that today,” Berry said. “That’s our pace, and if we can continue that pace, it will be hard for teams to stop us in transition.”
Williams said that the pace Sunday was more to his liking.
“On Friday, we tried to really emphasize pushing the ball and pushing the ball and getting back to who we want to be,” he said.
For much of the season, there was a clear drop off with Berry on the bench and Woods at point guard. That wasn’t the case Sunday.
“He did a great job making the easy play,” Berry said. “And I think he’s starting to understand that a bit more, and on the defensive end he’s getting to the point where he’s getting better staying in front of the ball. He’s had a little bit of challenge with that, but I think he’s doing a great job of when we need him to come in and get some good minutes.”
In 15 minutes against the Wolfpack, Woods played well defensively while collecting six points, four assists and only two turnovers. It was that assist-to-turnover ratio that most pleased Williams the most, along with flashes of quickness that you can’t teach.
“I did think he showed some burst,” Williams said. “A couple of times, he got the ball in a crowd and picked it up and all the sudden the ball is behind his back and he’s attacking the basket. He’s got a burst and a gear that a lot of people don’t have, and we’ve just get him to use it more.”
Above all, a healthy Berry is what he probably is most happy to see. You don’t see the dazzling passes that Kendall Marshall produced nearly every game. But there haven’t been many UNC point guards who go to the rim with more productive results.
“Joel is kind of like the leader on the court,” said Isaiah Hicks, who had 11 points. “The way he plays sometimes dictates how everybody else plays. Him getting stops on defense, getting out and running. Just provides us with a lot of energy.”
There was plenty of energy to go around Sunday.