NEW YORK — If there ever was a doubt about which player most determines North Carolina’s success, there shouldn’t be after the Tar Heels’ loss Friday in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
UNC was sluggish against inferior teams in December when Joel Berry II missed two games with a sprained left ankle and was sick for two others. Against Duke, the Tar Heels wilted when the junior guard went to the bench with four fouls.
The Tar Heels went from an eight-point lead to a seven-point deficit with Berry on the bench. They couldn’t recover when he returned in a 93–83 Blue Devils victory, their sixth consecutive ACC Tournament victory over UNC.
“It was brutal and I hate it that I was on the bench,” said Berry, who finished with 10 points and two assists in 24 minutes, his fewest minutes since playing 23 in a home blowout win over N.C. State. “As they came back, I wanted to be out there so bad. I just like to compete. It was hard, but you have to get credit to them. I was just frustrated because I feel like I put the blame on me.”
For the game, No. 14 Duke outscored No. 6 UNC 42–26 while Berry was on the bench. While Berry was out from the 15:50 mark of the second half until returning with 4:58 left, UNC was outscored 22–14.
The natural question is whether Coach Roy Williams waited too long to insert Berry back into the game.
“Yeah, but I mean at the same time, you never know how the game is going,” Berry said. “I could have bumped somebody and they would have called a foul. Just the way the game was going, the coaches knew they were calling the touch fouls and a foul could put me out.”
Berry said that while he was out, Carolina (27–7) made it too easy on Duke (26–8).
“I just think we got away from making them guard,” Berry said. “They’re not a good defensive team and we didn’t put pressure on them to guard. When we were moving and cutting and setting down screens and curling and doing all that, it was hard for them to guard. But as soon as we stood around, that played right into what they wanted us to do.”
Coach Roy Williams saw the same thing sitting next to Berry on the bench.
“I think our offense stopped moving,” Williams said. “They picked us up a little bit in the backcourt. We wasted some time in the backcourt getting it down. We really did stop moving.”
The officiating crew frustrated both coaches for much of the game by calling a lot of touch fouls. Those sorts of calls, all on the defensive end, were what sent Berry to the bench. On the fourth foul, if Berry may have only slightly touched Frank Jackson’s wrist when he knocked the ball away
Duke dealt with foul trouble as well, with Amile Jefferson fouling out and Jayson Tatum picking up four fouls. But the Blue Devils were better able to overcome that with Tatum scoring a game-high 24 points.
“I don’t want to say anything about the refs. It could have went either way,” Berry said. “I’m an aggressive player and sometimes, yeah touch fouls are there, but at the same time this is D-I basketball and at a high level so sometimes you have to go on and let the game go.”
While several players credited Nate Britt with playing well in Berry’s absence, Britt was the first to admit that there clearly is a different rhythm with him at point guard. Seventh Woods was another option, but he never got off the bench in the second half after playing two minutes in the first half.
“Our offense is different,” said Britt, who collected eight points and two assists. “We’re used to Joel being out there at all times. Joel shoots it at a higher clip. He’s more of a threat from the outside and I like to get to the paint. It makes it a little different. I like to look to pass first. It changes that whole dynamic.”
The Tar Heels had consistent success getting the ball inside in the first half when Kennedy Meeks scored 15 of his 19 points and pulled down seven of his 12 rebounds. But his production fell off in the second half.
“He’s capable of creating a lot of good shots for us and getting people the ball at the right spots,” Meeks said of Berry. “I think that’s the main thing we were missing. It just shows how much Joel means to us when he’s out of the game. A good defensive player and even better offensive player.”
With the Tar Heels’ second-leading scorer out for so long, its leading scorer, Justin Jackson, had more of a burden. He did score 16 points and dish out four assists, but he was 3-of-11 from 3-point range.
“It’s tough because, for me, I look at it and I say I didn’t play well at all,” Jackson said. “A lot of times when I miss a shot, I had a bad decision, they took advantage of it. That’s on me. I can’t play like that for us to try to get at the level we want to play at.”
Jackson said that a lot of factors just snowballed during Duke’s 20–9 rally. Carolina was able to tie the game at 70. But the Blue Devils then went on a 12–3 run and never trailed again.
“If you continue to make mistakes and continue to miss shots, unfortunately, that’s what’s going to happen,” Jackson said. “We couldn’t get stops. A lot of it was bad decisions by me, bad shots by me.”
Theo Pinson was a big part of UNC building a 13-point halftime lead, and he finished with a season-high eight assists. But he said that once Duke got rolling, it escalated fast.
“Threes get you back in the game pretty quick. It felt quick,” Pinson said. “The momentum shifted, we needed a basket to slow them down and we couldn’t get it. It wasn’t like it was panic city, we just didn’t make those baskets that we needed to make. We needed to be tougher to make them and we didn’t.”
Now UNC gets a week to do some tough reflection before trying to find its groove again in the NCAA tournament.