Roy Williams pays tribute to seniors Joel Berry and Theo Pinson: “From the bottom of my heart I love you”

UNC coach Roy Williams addresses the Smith Center crowd and his senior players following their last home game on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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UNC coach Roy Williams addresses the Smith Center crowd and his senior players following their last home game on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Luke DeCock

Another dramatic finish for UNC seniors, who have seen it go both ways

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

February 28, 2018 12:45 AM

Chapel Hill

This time, they had to wait for confirmation, even though they clearly knew. Theo Pinson stood under the basket, hands on his knees. Joel Berry talked idly to a teammate. There was no confetti this time, just a simple declaration in a stunned Smith Center that Miami's last-second shot would count.

The two North Carolina seniors had been on both sides of a finish like this before. One cost them a national title. One propelled them to a national title. Their college careers have been marked by achievement and heartbreak, equal in magnitude if not volume.

Berry's clutch 3-pointer had tied the score with 4.1 seconds to go. Just like Marcus Paige in Houston. Just like Malik Monk in Memphis.

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North Carolina's Joel Berry II (2) puts up a shot to tie the game 88-88 with :05 to play against Miami on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Berry scored 31 in his final game at the Smith Center.
Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Miami's Ja'Quan Newton hustled up court, dribbled twice and threw in a heave at the buzzer. Not unlike Kris Jenkins for Villanova. Not unlike Luke Maye against Kentucky.

"It was a tough loss,” Berry said afterward, during his senior night speech. “For some reason people love to hit game winners on us like that.”

These two seniors – part of a class that once included Justin Jackson as well – have seen it all and done it all, but this 91-88 senior night loss Tuesday left one of very few boxes unchecked on their North Carolina resumes.

They're 114-34 for their careers, 13-2 in the NCAA tournament, 7-2 in the ACC tournament, ACC and national champions. But they're the first senior class to lose its final Smith Center home game to someone other than Duke in the Roy Williams era, and there's no getting that back.

If there's one other blemish on their resume, it's a 3-5 record against Duke. With a win in Durham on Saturday and a meeting in Brooklyn – where Miami, not coincidentally, is one of 10 ACC teams that could realistically win the tournament – they could potentially get back to .500 before they exit.

Miami’s JaQuan Newton (0) hits the game winning shot to give Miami a 91-88 victory over North Carolina with :01 to play in the game on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

It's possible the Tar Heels were pressing to deliver this win, plagued by defensive lapses and boneheaded turnovers – Berry admitted he forgot what play North Carolina was running when he passed the ball to no one. It was one of three turnovers on three possessions to start the second half that prompted a rare Williams quick-fire timeout.

Miami’s Lonnie Walker IV (4) embraces teammate JaíQuan Newton (0) after he hit the game winning shot to give Miami a 91-88 victory over North Carolina with :01 to pay in the game on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Every time the Tar Heels cut Miami's lead to single digits, the Hurricanes would hit a few shots, some uncontested, some exceedingly unlikely, and extend the lead back out of easy reach. It wasn't until the final four minutes that the Tar Heels were able to get within a possession, and even then they never actually closed the gap until Berry's 3-pointer.

The Tar Heels did almost all they could Tuesday. Berry scored 19 of North Carolina's final 22 points. Pinson had a career-high 11 assists. And then they watched, not for the first time in their careers, as one big shot was topped by an even bigger shot.

North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (2) drives to the basket against Miamiís Dewan Huell (20) on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Berry and Pinson – and Justin Jackson as well – have been surrounded by one kind of drama or another since before they even arrived on campus. Williams called it North Carolina's “most significant recruiting class in 50 years” because the trio committed at the apex of the NCAA investigation into the university.

They shrugged off the negative recruiting, watched potential recruits go elsewhere and stuck around long enough to see it through to its uneventful end. They were not only rewarded for their faith but are now inextricably linked in North Carolina history.

“You can't say Joel. You can't say Theo,” Williams said. “You can only say Joel and Theo. It ticks off Theo that we don't say Theo and Joel.”

Their final game on campus was just more of the same. The Jenkins shot was for bigger stakes, and Maye's too for that matter, but the feeling was all too familiar.

“It's one of those things,” Pinson said. “It sort of felt like Villanova, where you want it really bad. It's a tough one. Big-time shot.”

They have been through this before. The Jenkins shot spawned the redemption tour that propelled North Carolina back to the same position, and a championship the second time around. They know the feeling.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock