Everybody take a deep breath, lay back in your chair, and remove your lucky garment of choice that you’ve been wearing since Thursday. UNC survived what has to be one of the toughest three-game stretches any team has had to face in the country this year by beating Duke, NC State, and Notre Dame in just five days. A somewhat healthier Irish team came into Chapel Hill looking to avoid being swept, only to get beaten down 83-66 thanks to huge performances from Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson.
Matt Farrell wasn’t available during the first meeting between these two teams. Being one of their best players, one could only imagine what Carolina was in store for after they barely escaped South Bend with a win. This time, the Heels did what any smart team should do: took away Notre Dame’s two best players and dared their supporting cast to beat them. While Martinas Geben and John Mooney certainly tried their best, it just wasn’t enough in the end. Now we will wait and see if there will be a round three in Brooklyn next month.
So what did we learn from last night? Also, what did we learn from this weekend in general? The short answer is: a lot. For now, let’s just discuss a few key takeaways from yet another big win.
Toughness comes easy to UNC this year
If I am to be completely honest, I did not expect the Heels to win against Notre Dame. I fully expected them to go 2-1 during this three-game stretch, and as illogical as it might sound to have them losing by default to Notre Dame, you can look at how Luke Maye played last night and you’ll understand why (obviously not taking a shot at Maye, he had every reason to be exhausted after what he did at PNC Arena). Perhaps it did help that Notre Dame had played two games in three days themselves, but I think the reality of the situation is that UNC was determined not to let this unusual blip in the schedule beat them.
The situation really goes beyond stamina alone: UNC had to dig themselves out of big holes twice this weekend against Duke and NC State, which isn’t easy for any team no matter what name is on the front of their jersey. The Heels were down by 12 with six minutes left in the first half against Duke, only to go on huge runs and led by as many as 10 points in the second half. NC State continued to attempt to prove that they are our rivals by taking a 9-point lead with three minutes left in the first half. UNC won the game by 7 points. This team had every right to come out flat against Notre Dame, and instead they proved that they belong near the top of the ACC this year, and can certainly make a deep NCAA tournament run. Let’s hope they take their talents with them to the Yum! Center this Saturday.
The defense is better, until it isn’t
I guess it’s time to face the facts: this team is doomed to have random shooters get hot from behind the arc, and UNC will just have to figure out how to shut down everybody else. This of course isn’t to say that they should just give up playing defense on shooters, but it’s becoming more and more of a reality that players are figuring out how to get theirs from deep against Carolina and it may be more about minimizing the damage at this point of the season than stopping it altogether.
We all know that the way Roy Williams wants the Heels to play defense isn’t conducive to being great three-point defenders. When you play help defense the way they do, there will be holes. John Mooney was the newest member of the “Shoot the lights out against UNC” club, going 6-6 from three-point land. It’s gotten to the point where it hurts to watch, physically and mentally, but there are a few bright sides.
The first bright side is that Notre Dame still only shot at a 37% clip from the field as well as from three-point range. Mooney may have been able to get any and everything he wanted, but the rest of his team couldn’t say the same. Matt Farrell specifically shot poorly all night, shooting 3-18 from the field and only making 1 of his 18 three-point attempts. A lot of that is thanks to Joel Berry II’s excellent defensive performance, which leads to the third takeaway from this game...
Don’t worry about Joel Berry II
There’s some things in life that are extremely hard to understand, and one of those things is how Joel Berry II is able to perform at such a high level following Jalek Felton’s suspension. The storyline for the past couple weeks has been how Roy Williams would manage to get Berry some rest and not run the 2017 Final Four MOP into the ground. This is of course what we as media have been concerned about, yet meanwhile Joel Berry is reminding us exactly who he is. He is the guy that turned it on in the 2016 ACC Tournament to give the team a conference tournament championship, he is the guy who spent the last stretch of last year injured when he led the team to a National Championship, and now he is the guy that just willed this team through a three-game stretch after playing 105 out of 120 possible minutes.
Joel Berry made 8-15 shots from the field against Notre Dame, while going 2-5 from deep to finish the game with 21 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block. This is the second game in a row that he has shot 50%+ from the field, and even though he was inefficient he still managed to score 21 points against Duke.
Beyond his offensive performances, Berry has been a lockdown defender against Duke, NC State and Notre Dame. Trevon Duval only managed to go 2-9 and finished with 9 points against Berry, and Matt Farrell had a very rough night despite the hype surrounding him getting to play in the second game against the Heels. Berry also won the defensive award for his performance against NC State, which is his 7th time being honored this year tying Kenny Williams for the most on the team. Joel Berry II isn’t tired folks, he’s just getting started.
Final note from the game: Cameron Johnson tried to end Rex Pflueger’s whole career. It was magnificent. Please enjoy.