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UNC vs. Notre Dame Player of the Game: Joel Berry

Multiple players could stake their claim to being the Sunday’s Player of the Game, but Joel Berry’s versatility was on full display.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Early on Sunday afternoon, it looked as though Kennedy Meeks was on his way to another double-double against the overmatched Fighting Irish. Notre Dame was clearly outmatched down low, and the Heels were determined to exploit the weakness. Meeks was a big part of that game plan.

That also opened the door for Kenny Williams to find some freedom around the perimeter, where he posted an 11-3-3 stat line, with more than a few defensive possessions that will never show up in the box score. They were both well on their way to memorable performances.

Unfortunately, Jamie Luckie and his local neighborhood referees made sure that didn’t happen. Battling foul trouble in the second half, thanks to some interesting interpretations of what a “foul” is, Meeks saw limited minutes. He finished the day with only 16 minutes of action.

Additionally, Williams appears to battling a pesky lower leg injury that won’t quite go away, and saw his performance plateau in the second half. Foul trouble also forced him to take a few extended breaks.

That opened the door for a ninja-like, sneaky, diverse and effective game from Joel Berry.

Berry tallied 12 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals. It was a solid, efficient day for the junior point guard. He was active in all facets of the game, including ending the day 5-7 from the foul line. Even more impressive? Despite ending the first half with zero points on 0-3 shooting (all behind the arc), he facilitated five assists that saw UNC enter halftime with a 42-34 lead.

In the second half, with foul trouble (Meeks), and injuries (Kenny Williams) beginning to take their toll, Berry stepped up and switched tactics. With an array of drives, pull-ups, and three point attempts, he kept the Notre Dame defense on their heels. On 3-7 shooting (1-2 from three) and 5-7 from the line, all of Berry’s 12 points were scored in the second half.

It was a vintage performance that most fans have come to expect of a Tar Heel point guard. It came at just the right time, against a top-25 opponent, as the Heels prepare for the annual trip to Durham.

Berry had been in a mini-slump the past four games, not accounting for Sunday’s 3-10 (1-5 from three) shooting effort. In fact, in UNC’s last four games, not counting Sunday’s clash against the Irish, Berry was 14-43 from the field. That included a dismal 2 for 16 inside the arc. Yet, he had been an impressive, if not over-reliant, 12-27 from three.

However, in a departure from his recent trend of living or dying by the three, he arguably had his most complete game since he had a 23-5-7 stat line in that that instant-classic against Kentucky. If that sounds a bit silly, consider the following:

His five rebounds were the most since he coralled the same amount when Syracuse visited the Dean Dome. He hadn’t had more than three in the seven games since.

His three steals were the most Berry has had in a game since the Heels blitzed Oklahoma State in Maui.

His 5-7 performance from the foul line? The most since he went 7-8 against Florida State. In the five games between FSU and yesterday’s game, he was 5-7 from the line. Total.

Surprised? How about the fact that his seven assists yesterday were the most since he had the same total against Wake Forest? In the six games between then and Sunday, he had a total of 13 assists. Six games. 13 assists. From a UNC starting PG.

He also hit the most important shot of the game. It was Berry’s long 2-point jumper with 3:33 left in the game that put the Heels up by four, and began an 8-0 UNC run to effectively end any chances of a dramatic Irish comeback.

He wasn’t necessarily spectacular yesterday, but Berry gave the Heels exactly what they needed, when they needed it. More importantly, he proved that he does not have to score 20 points in order for UNC to win.

That’s encouraging, because with five games against Louisville, Virginia (twice), and Duke (twice) looming, Berry will get plenty of defensive attention. He will have to find multiple ways to contribute.

Sunday proved that he can.

Bring on Duke.