North Carolina trainer Doug Halverson checks on Joel Berry II (2) during the second half of UNC's 82-65 victory over Miami. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com
North Carolina trainer Doug Halverson checks on Joel Berry II (2) during the second half of UNC's 82-65 victory over Miami. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Luke DeCock

Berry's ankle scare an echo of Marches past, if not in bad way for UNC

By Luke DeCock

Luke DeCock

March 09, 2018 12:37 AM

NEW YORK

Theo Pinson had two assists to go with his 25 points and 11 rebounds. But his most important assist never showed up on the stat sheet.

Joel Berry was rolling around on the court, grabbing his left ankle in what has become a peculiar North Carolina rite of spring. Pinson, not wanting to go down that particular road again, yelled at Berry to get up. So Berry got up.

“I don't know why,” Berry said afterward, sitting comfortably in front of his locker without an ice bag in sight. “It's always like this.”

In a very odd 82-65 win over Miami on Thursday, the feeling of dread from seeing both Berry and Cam Johnson writhing on the court in pain, albeit temporarily, lingered as much as the excitement – on both sides – of the arrival of a third meeting with Duke in Friday's ACC semifinals or the memory of falling behind 14-0 to start the game only to take the lead by halftime.

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Berry's ankle injuries served as the thrumming rhythm guitar track to North Carolina's run to the national title last spring, but it was an issue that started in December. His ankles remained mildly chronic before Berry tweaked first his right in the first weekend — and then his left and his right again in the second weekend. It was a source of constant consternation and concern, not that it slowed the Tar Heels down any overall, even if Berry limped into the title game.

North Carolina's Joel Berry talks about his and Theo Pinson's play during the Tar Heels' victory over the Miami Hurricanes in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Thursday, March 8, 2018.

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This season has been ankle-quiet for Berry, up until he stepped on someone's foot Thursday night. At which point the crowd gasped and everyone, even Berry, shared a common thought.

“It's funny, when I did it, everybody in the crowd was like, 'Oooooooh,' ” Berry said. “And I was like 'Yeah, it's my ankle again.' ”

Berry trotted off to the locker room eventually but was able to walk it off, and returned to the game showing no ill effects, then or later. He didn't even need to get it retaped.

Johnson had an injury scare of his own, serving as the landing pad for big Miami center Ebuka Izundu, folding Johnson's right leg awkwardly under him and doing something weird to his lower back, hip and hamstring. Johnson also was in severe pain, also went back to the locker room and also returned with no apparent ill effects.

In sum: Scary, but not catastrophic.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams talks about the Tar Heels' victory over the Miami Hurricanes in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Thursday, March 8, 2018.

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“Honestly, I did get a little scared when Joel and Cam went down,” North Carolina guard Kenny Williams said. “I think they're a little soft. They were rolling on the ground, and then they got right back up and started walking.”

Williams was joking, and if Berry, the latest of Roy Williams' tough little nuts, proved anything last year, it's that he's tough enough to win on not just one but a pair of bad ankles.

Still, there's something about Berry's ankle getting attention that has the distinct aura of March for the Tar Heels, even for him.

“I've been through this before,” Berry said. “It's nothing new to me.”

Given what happened last year, it may even be some kind of weird omen for North Carolina, although both Berry and the Tar Heels would be just as happy if it were an episode contained to this one game, an echo of the past without having to relive it.

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