By Adam Lucas
GREENVILLE—Hey, Theo, next time maybe you could share with the rest of us.
When Joel Berry II was lying on the Bon Secours Wellness Center court with 16:31 left in Friday’s Tar Heel NCAA Tournament opener, no one cared that Carolina held a 61-29 lead. No one was interested in Sunday’s matchup with Arkansas. No one, finally, was talking about their bracket.
We had good reason to be concerned, of course. The last time we saw the Tar Heels play a basketball game, Berry went out of the contest with foul trouble and Carolina promptly spiraled to a loss. There are big hopes and dreams for the next three weeks.
This was, essentially, the season. Carolina can still be very good without Joel Berry. But let’s be real: Carolina can’t win a national title without Joel Berry.
So as Berry rolled around near midcourt, the rest of us were experiencing shortness of breath. We weren’t alone.
“My biggest fear,” said Roy Williams, “was Joel Berry. All of a sudden, sometimes as a coach, when there’s a timeout you have negative thoughts.”
Dear Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams: sometimes when you’re not a coach, you have negative thoughts. And so, when play resumed and Carolina was still running up and down the court, but with Berry in the locker room, you remembered Kendall Marshall knocked to the court in Greensboro, Ty Lawson’s toe, or Jerry Stackhouse turning an ankle on the opening tip against Arkansas in the Final Four. We understand that part of the deal in March is you might--you probably will--lose. But let the end come with a healthy team. "What if..." is the very worst question.
While the rest of us were stressing, Berry’s roommate wasn’t particularly concerned.
“When he first went down, I was thinking, ‘Uh oh, get up,’” said Theo Pinson. “But he’s tough, and I knew he’d be OK. And when I went over to him while he was on the ground, he said, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’ Once he said that, I knew he would shake it off.”
This is where we need to come to some sort of agreement, Theo. Williams typically frowns on players tweeting from the Tar Heel bench. But could we come up with some sort of signal so you can let us know that doomsday hasn’t occurred?
After the injury, Berry went straight to the tunnel with UNC trainer Doug Halverson.
“I was running and doing some defensive slides,” Berry said. “That’s the biggest thing. I can play on offense. The biggest thing is whether I can guard the ball. I don’t want to put my team in jeopardy with guys penetrating and getting past me. So the biggest thing was me sliding laterally.”
Backup point guard Stilman White has been here before (and no, he wasn’t on that 1995 Final Four team when Stackhouse was injured). When Marshall was knocked out of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, it was White who was pressed into starting point guard duty (he didn’t commit a turnover in two games). From his vantage point on the Carolina bench on Friday, White could tell this wasn’t a similar situation.
“I didn’t have any flashbacks,” White said. “I try not to think about things like that. Joel is really tough. Sometimes I think he should be playing football instead of basketball. He’s a brute. He can take shots as well as anyone on the team.”
After 4:46 on the clock but months in your heart, Berry returned, getting a big hand from the sellout crowd when he walked to the scorer’s table. He played the next 3:58, and did, quite honestly, not much of anything. During that stretch, his only entry in the box score was a missed field goal, but it really didn’t matter. He played, which was all anyone wanted to see.
This is why it’s so incredibly difficult to win one of these tournaments. You’re sailing along, up by 30 points, your ACC Player of the Year has regained his shooting stroke, your post men are unstoppable…and you are always one quirky ankle injury away from utter disaster. Why is it that we love this again?
“My guess is it will stiffen up a little bit,” Williams said of the 48 hours before tipoff against the Razorbacks. “But I feel certain that he’ll be able to go. And he said his momma’s here, so she can clap her hands together like Mr. Miyagi and put her hands on his ankle and I’m sure it will make it feel better.”
A word to Mrs. Berry: please, no Epsom salts (check your 2009 Lawson injury reports if you don’t remember).
This time, it appears that disaster was averted. The Tar Heels survive. Joel Berry’s ankle survived. The rest of us survived, if barely.
“I could have gotten up and played defense,” Berry said of when he went down. “But I didn’t want to push anything. It wasn’t like I needed to get up and try to win a championship today.”
No, not today. But the Tar Heels are one of only 32 teams with a championship dream remaining. May the draw be favorable, the jumpers pure and the ankles healthy.