"I tried to get it as high as I could."

"I tried to get it as high as I could."

The legacy of Joel Berry's floater with 10.3 seconds left in UNC's 73-69 win over Wake Forest is yet to be written. Will it be on mental highlight reels for Carolina fans for years to come, like Marcus Paige's scoop-shot to beat Louisville? Or will it become another floater lost to the craziness of college basketball behind so many other shots by players in big-time spots?

For at least an afternoon, however, it'll be the lasting image for Tar Heel fans of an ACC opening win.

Joel Berry knew he was going to get the ball. As the point guard for the North Carolina Tar Heels, the senior knew he was expected to step up in big moments, like Marcus Paige, Raymond Felton, Phil Ford, and he himself had done before. 

He wasn't having his best game, finishing the first half with just seven points on 37.5 percent shooting, including a 1-for-5 clip from behind the arc. 

"I didn’t hit the shots," Berry said. "A couple of them were wide open, and I should’ve knocked them down. I think I rushed them a little bit. Sometimes you’ve got to live with it, you got to continue to play, continue to be aggressive, and that’s what I did.

"I never want to stop shooting, because then I know that I’m out of my game."

Shortly before the first media timeout in the second half, Berry got another chance behind the arc. But instead of settling, he pump faked, sending the Demon Deacon into the air, and calmly took one dribble and nailed the two-point jumper just inside the line. 

"That pump fake, one dribble, that’s something I always work on," Berry said. "I knew that if I knocked that down, it was going to get me in a rhythm."

The rhythm persisted, as he knocked down a three-pointer off a tip out and drilled a pull-up jumper to build the Tar Heels' second-half lead. But sloppy play from UNC down the stretch led to turnovers and wide-open Wake Forest shots, resulting in a moment that screamed for someone to step up.

So when coach Roy Williams called a play for him with the game tied at 69, Berry went to work. Taking the ball on the left side of the three-point arc, he gave Wake Forest's Keyshawn Woods a move.

"I kind of faked like I was throwing it to somebody coming off the screen in the middle," Berry said. "I drove it into the lane, and I saw somebody coming over to take the charge."

It was Mitchell Wilbekin, peeling off of Kenny Williams to get in front of the driver. Berry quickly pro-hopped past him and came face-to-face with Doral Moore, the Demon Deacons' 7-foot-1 center that had been swatting Tar Heel shots all game. 

"Anytime you go in there, you’re looking right at him and you know ‘Oh, he’s going to try to block it,’" Theo Pinson said. "So you’ve got to adjust your shot."

Berry did, floating the ball with a higher arc that he usually does over the outstretched hand of Moore. It dropped down gently, catching nothing but net and putting the Tar Heels up two.

"I tried to get it as high as I could and floated it up, and ended up going in," Berry said. "We just needed that basket at that time."

Williams wasn't happy with his team's play today. And for good reason. They had as many turnovers in the second half as they had assists, and left way too many guys open on the defensive end. In particular, he thought Luke Maye —who had another double with 17 points and 15 rebounds— and Berry needed to step up. 

"I don't think he played worth a darn," Williams said of Berry. “It was not a very positive message to them in the locker room, because by golly we’ve got to play smarter we’ve got to play harder.”

Berry knows that he can play better. His floater in the closing seconds may become just another highlight for another great Carolina guard. Or it may become something bigger, the spark that kicks a team needing to play better across the board to another deep postseason run. What it becomes, fortunately, is all up to Berry and his teammates.

"Coach looks to us to be able to make big time plays in those moments," Berry said. "He looked at me in the locker room today and said I didn’t play my best, which he is right. He has high hopes for me."

With road trips to Florida State and Virginia happening within the week, Tar Heel fans will hope Berry can meet those expectations too. 

 

@sjdoughton

Photo by Caleb Jones