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 was just saving it all for one big moment: with North Carolina playing to win 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 was shooting just 28 percent (17 of 60) in the first five tournament games, including 8 for 34 (24 percent) from 3-point range. 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.
Coach Roy Williams 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 struggled mightily in the national semifinals against Oregon, missing 12 of 14 shots while Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks carried the attack. But with Jackson struggling with his shot and the Tar Heels getting little inside, 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.