By the end of North Carolina’s 72-65 victory against Arkansas on Sunday, thin streaks of blood covered three of Joel Berry’s fingertips on his right hand. He bites his nails, he said afterward. It’s a bad habit, he said. A nervous habit. Berry had been nervous.
“I can’t stop biting them,” said Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior point guard. “I’ve been doing it all my life.”
He didn’t bite them during the game, he said. There was no time then, after all, while the Tar Heels surrendered a 17-point, first-half lead, and while they fought their way back in the final minutes, their season pushed to the brink of extinction. Berry in those late, stressful moments had other priorities.
Leading into Sunday, though, his habit had earned the best of him.
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“Coming into the game, and the last couple of days, ever since I twisted my ankle, I’ve been nervous,” Berry said. “And I’ve just been doing whatever it took to get back on the court. And I’ve been nervous up until game time, because I just didn’t know how my ankle was going to hold up.”
That was the fear before the game, Berry’s right ankle. He twisted it on Friday in the second half of a 39-point victory against Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Soon enough on Sunday, though, the Tar Heels (29-7), the top seed in the South Region, encountered a concern far graver.
They trailed Arkansas (26-10) by five, 65-60, with three minutes left. Long gone was UNC’s 17-point, first-half lead, and the momentum that came with it, and on the bench UNC’s reserves fidgeted in nervous anguish. On the court the anxiety felt no less severe.
This is what some of them said later about those moments, losing by five in the final minutes, the end of their season – the end of some of their college basketball playing days – fast approaching with every second. This is what they thought and what they felt:
“The last three minutes of that game, when I was on the bench, I think that’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life when it comes to basketball,” senior guard Nate Britt said.
“That could have been the end of our season,” said Justin Jackson, the junior forward and ACC Player of the Year.
“It was do or die,” said Theo Pinson, the junior forward, before repeating himself. “It was do or die.”
“I was just thinking to myself, ‘This can’t be it,’ ” said Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward. “I didn’t want this to be my last game.”
It easily could have been, though, and would have been if not for the Tar Heels’ improbable 12-0 run to end the game – a run defined by defense and UNC’s calm knack for making free throws amid the most pressurized of postseason environments. UNC’s victory will be remembered for that frenetic finish.
It will be remembered for Hicks’ dunk that cut Arkansas’ lead to one, 65-64, with less than 2½ minutes to play, and for Hicks giving UNC the lead with two free throws about 30 seconds later.
It will be remembered for Kennedy Meeks’ tip-in with 44 seconds remaining, a shot that Meeks made after Berry threw up a prayer – a pass, he later said, joking – under duress. And it will be remembered for Jackson’s dunk at the end on a breakaway, a signature moment, and a moment of release and relief.
“Definitely a big relief, just to know that we got away with that one,” Jackson said. “And it felt like it was the hardest game we’ve ever played.”
It was the kind of game that UNC rarely wins. The blueprint for defeat was there: squander a commanding lead and endure prolonged stretches of futility and play sound defense, at times, only to watch the opponent make a shot while the shot clock expired, or over an outstretched hand.
This had all of those things and more. It had Berry playing through ankle pain, and Jackson playing through another rough shooting night. Berry and Jackson, the Tar Heels’ two leading scorers, labored through one of their worst collective shooting performances of the season.
They missed 20 of their 27 shots from the field. Arkansas, meanwhile, made circus shots at times – ones from high off of the backboard and ones with the shot clock about to expire. There were moments, some UNC players acknowledged, when they thought that perhaps this just wasn’t their Sunday.
“There were certain plays that were kind of lining up that just kind of, kept on breaking us a little bit,” Jackson said. “But for us, we tried to stay in it, believe that we could win.”
That was the word, in the final minutes, that the Tar Heels kept repeating to one another: Believe.
It is tattooed on the inside of one of Berry’s arms. Now it became a mantra.
Players repeated it among themselves. It spread down the bench, and onto the court.
“Everybody was talking about it – JB said something about it,” Jackson said, referencing Berry. “Kennedy said something about it. I said something about it. And so it was kind of going through the whole team, and that’s just the type of guys that we are and how close we are. ...
“Just believe. Believe that we can win.”
More than belief, UNC needed execution. It needed to do what it failed to do for long stretches of the second half: generate defensive stops while scoring on the other end. Afterward, with the comeback still fresh and raw, UNC coach Roy Williams said, more than once, that his team had been “lucky.”
“And I don’t mind saying I feel a little lucky,” Williams said.
Later he added more perspective.
“The last seven possessions we scored six times,” he said. “The last seven possessions they didn’t score. So that’s some toughness there, too. I’ll still say I feel lucky. But you know what? Luck is – what’s that old saying? Preparation meets opportunity.”
UNC had prepared for this. Toward the end of most practices, the Tar Heels try to simulate what they faced on Sunday. In the simulation, UNC is losing, 86-80. The Tar Heels have three minutes remaining to tie the score, or win.
And so here was the real-life version of it at Bon Secours Wellness Arena: UNC down five, three minutes to go. For nearly a year now, the Tar Heels had been trying to return to the national championship game. Now their season came down to these three minutes
Kenny Williams, the sophomore guard who is out for the season with a knee injury, might have been the most nervous of all while he sat on the bench, helpless, wearing a suit. On the court, Berry had those bloody nails. The Tar Heels kept telling themselves to believe. Then the refrain changed.
“We’re going to Memphis,” Pinson said, twice, referencing the site of the South Regional, where the Tar Heels will play against Butler on Friday. UNC is in a regional semifinal for the 35th time. All around the UNC locker room, players exhaled amid the strange feeling of joy and relief, the release of nervous energy.
Hicks scrolled through his phone, an endless stream of congratulatory text messages. Williams sat a couple of seats down to the left, still looking as though he hadn’t quite processed everything that had just happened – the loss of a 17-point lead, the season rushing to its end, and then finding new life.
“You can breathe now, Kenny,” Hicks said to Williams.
“No I can’t,” Williams said, shaking his head, smiling, exhaling.
“Why?” Hicks asked, and Williams replied without hesitation.
“We’ve got four more games.”