UNC knocked off Georgia Tech 86-78 on Saturday in a classic ACC battle. Here is what we learned.
Joel Berry is one tough customer.
It is no secret at this point that sophomores under Roy Williams made a huge jump from their freshman to sophomore seasons. Joel Berry is the latest in the long line of players who really come into their own during their second season in Tar Heel blue. However for much of the game it certainly didn't look that way for UNC's starting point guard.
Berry was just 2-for-5 in the first half and committed a pair of costly turnovers resulting in Yellow Jacket points. The second half wasn't going much better with Berry committing three more, two of them in the first three minutes leading to four more Tech points. The sophomore guard wasn't daunted by mistakes and his confident didn't waver even after missing a corner three of a set play with the Tar Heels up 61-59. The Tar Heels' failure to capitalize with the lead allowed the Yellow Jackets to push back in front. As the clock moved towards five minutes left and UNC trailing by one, the Tar Heels needed someone to step up.
That someone was Berry. Over the final 5:07, the Tar Heels outscored Georgia Tech 20-11 to close out an eight point win. Berry's play was a huge factor in UNC's final push for the win. With UNC trailing by one, Berry hit a three with 5:07 left to secure a Tar Heel lead. On the next possession, Berry aggressively drove to the basket, got the basket and the foul for a conventional three point play. Two possessions, six points from Berry and the Tar Heels were suddenly up four points. Of UNC's final 20 points, 11 of them came from Berry including 6-7 at the line
For the day Berry finishes with 19 points and had four assists but five turnovers. His work at the line ended up being a difference maker hitting 8-9 and pacing UNC to a 24-29 day at the charity stripe.
Brice Johnson bounces back
You never quite know what you are going to get with Brice Johnson from one game or one play to the next with one exception. Johnson has shown time and time again he can bounce back from a bad game. Against Clemson, Johnson had just 3 points and was largely a non-factor missing all sorts of chip shots around the rim. In five games during the 2015 season, Johnson responded to scoring outings of 5 points or less with an 16.4 ppg average and 60% shooting.
Today's effort was in line with that though it wasn't easy. Johnson has struggled in two games versus ACC competition with making shots other than dunks. Of Johnson's six made FGs vs Georgia Tech, four were dunks. Despite the shooting woes, Johnson was 3-3 at the line and grabbed 11 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season. Johnson also added a pair of blocks.
Johnson continues to be an emotional player and while there are moments he still loses focus, he seems to be more consistent so far this season in channeling those emotions into the game. So far the biggest victim of that has been the rim.
The Joel James game
Let's be honest. Joel James had struggled this season to be effective in the post whether it was off the bench or as Kennedy Meek's replacement. There appeared to be a notable regression from last season where James provided some solid minutes at times off the bench. Last season James had shot 45% from the floor in limited minutes and a respectable 67% at the line. James was required to be the next coming of Tyler Hansbrough but he was being asked to play positive minutes which, for the most part, he did.
This season has been different for James. His shooting percentage was at 35% prior to this game and 61% at the line. Even when Meeks was healthy, James looked discombobulated during his relief stints from the bench. He routinely missed shots, oftentimes badly and for the most part was not a positive factor. As a starter, his play didn't improve and his minutes reflected that as he played less than Isaiah Hicks.
That made today's outburst a pleasant surprise and a timely one. UNC was struggling offensively but James provided some early points to help the Tar Heels keep pace. At one point James made three straight baskets to give UNC a four point lead. His line for the game was 11 points and 5 rebounds, the former tying a career high against a team with a rotation of big bodies to contend with.
At this point, these types of performances are likely far and few in between for James but if he can occasionally put together solid minutes like he played today, it should bridge the minutes Meeks is out that much easier to weather.