North Carolina's Joel Berry II (2) shoots over Duke's Grayson Allen (3) during the first half of Saturday's game in Chapel Hill. Berry scored 28 points to lead the Tar Heels to a 90-83 win.
By Ross Martin
Special to the Times
Once again the North Carolina-Duke game lived up to its billing.
The back-and-forth contest Saturday night in Chapel Hill’s Smith Center saw 23 lead changes before the Tar Heels, ranked fifth by The Associated Press, pulled away at the end for a 90-83 win over the No. 17 Blue Devils. The largest lead of the game for any team was the final margin.
Joel Berry II was the hero for the Heels as the junior point guard scored 28 points, hitting all five of his 3-point attempts in the first half. A key pull-up jumper and left-handed layup in the final minutes helped put UNC ahead.
“I just wanted to assert myself tonight and just be a little more aggressive,” he said. “I just told myself to be patient, my time is coming. Next thing you know I just started hitting shots.”
Berry stepped up for an otherwise cold Tar Heel squad. Without Berry’s five 3s, UNC was just 1 of 12 from behind the arc.
“I was in my groove, playing the way that I know how to play and being aggressive,” Berry told reporters. “I just felt that I was back to myself and got lost in the game.”
Isaiah Hicks was also critical for the Heels. After a stretch of foul trouble and limited production, the senior forward stepped up big against the Blue Devils. He finished with 21 points (7 of 9 from the field and 7 of 8 from the free-throw line) and nine rebounds.
“We are better when Isaiah is playing and playing well,” head coach Roy William said. “Needless to say when you play 22 minutes, score 21 points, and have nine rebounds — he is playing and playing well. He was big for us tonight.”
Hicks told reporters after the game that a conversation with Williams earlier in the week, combined with the importance of playing Duke in his last game in the Dean Dome, inspired his performance.
Justin Jackson was quiet for most of the evening, but hit a clutch 3 down the stretch and a key go-ahead transition layup off a Theo Pinson assist to cement the win. He finished with 15 points on 6-of-17 shooting and went 1 of 7 from 3-point range.
Kennedy Meeks, Luke Maye and Tony Bradley scored eight pointseach to help UNC finish with a 44-26 interior scoring advantage.
TOP SEED AGAIN
The Tar Heels secured a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title Saturday, Feb. 25 with the win over Pittsburgh and Duke’s loss to Miami that day. They clinched the outright title Saturday afternoon after Notre Dame lost to Louisville. The Heels’ win over Duke gave Carolina the ACC regular-season championship by a two-game margin.
North Carolina, which fell to No. 6 in Monday’s AP rankings, now heads to Brooklyn this week for the ACC tournament. As the top seed, the Heels will have a double bye and will play the winner of No. 8-seed Syracuse and No. 9 Miami on Thursday at noon. The Orange and Hurricanes play Wednesday at noon.
All games will be played in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
If it is victorious, UNC will meet either No. 4 Louisville, No. 5 Duke, No. 12 Clemson, or No. 13 N.C. State on Friday in the ACC semifinals at 7 p.m.
The ACC championship game is Saturday night at 9.
JACKSON PICKING UP AWARDS
Jackson collected an armful of honors Monday as the junior small forward was named the ACC Player of the Year by AP, a day after the ACC bestowed the same honor on him. Jackson also earned First-Team All-America status from The Sporting News and landed on the All-America second teams picked by USA Today and NBC Sports.
The Tomball, Texas, native leads Carolina in scoring at 18.3 points per game and in 3-pointers with 85. He is averaging 4.7 rebounds and 2.6 assists. He is setting career highs in scoring average, 3-point percentage (.385), 3-pointers and rebounds.
“It’s an honor and a blessing by my God,” says Jackson. “My teammates are a huge part of this award and I can’t thank my coaches and them enough.”
Roy Williams said in a release from UNC: “Justin has been really good from day 1. To have the kind of success shooting the ball and making big plays in key situations like he did against Duke is a credit to him and the amount of work he put in to improve his game. We went through a very difficult ACC schedule and Justin gave our players a lot of confidence knowing that he would consistently be putting up 18-20 points, about five rebounds and some key assists each game. He listened to our coaching staff last spring about how to improve as a player and was determined to get better and stronger, which through his hard work and sweat, he is now reaping the benefits.”
Berry earned Second Team All-ACC honors from both the ACC and the AP and Williams was second in Coach-of-the Year voting in the ACC.
JORDAN BRAND PARTNERS WITH FOOTBALL
Outside of the action on the court, the buzz in the Dean Dome on Saturday night was the announcement that Carolina football is moving to Jordan Brand for the 2017 season and beyond.
Michael Jordan came into town for the announcement.
“His Airness” himself joined North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora for a presentation during halftime of the UNC-Duke game. The Dean Dome crowd was in a tizzy as a hype video led into Jordan’s appearance in the building.
“We’re excited to partner with Michael Jordan — the greatest athlete of all-time — to bring the Jumpman into the Carolina football program,” says Fedora. “Michael’s impact on the University of North Carolina and the sports landscape in this state is incredible. Our partnership will bring us a greater association with MJ and his brand on the football field moving forward.”
Ross Martin covers North Carolina basketball, football and recruiting for 247Sports.com and CBS Sports. Check out more of his work at northcarolina.247sports.com.