With Paige gone, Berry takes lead in Tar Heels’ backcourt

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Joel Berry II knows what awaits him this year at North Carolina.

He’s coming off a big year in which his offensive output and floor game blossomed for a team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and played for the NCAA title. And with four-year starter Marcus Paige gone, Berry enters his junior season looking like the top candidate to take Paige’s role as the guy to entrust with a taking a big shot.

“It’s something that’s just a part of the game and just part of being here at this school,” Berry said Tuesday during UNC’s preseason media day. “There’s times where it’s going to be on you to make a big shot. I’m going to just try to approach it like I did last year: I’m not going to try to force anything.

“If the ball is in my hand and I have the open shot, I’m going to take it. But other than that, I’m going to just try to do what I can to lead this team to victory and do whatever it takes.”

Berry was the Tar Heels’ No. 2 scorer last year (12.8 points) behind Associated Press All-American Brice Johnson inside. He was also the team’s best outside shooter (38 percent from 3-point range) and played the point, leading the team in assists and steals as well as in free-throw percentage (86.7).

But he had Paige roaming the backcourt alongside him and Johnson in the post all that time. The difference is now Berry will likely be at or near the top of every defensive scouting report, one of three returning starters from a team that reached the program’s first Final Four since 2009.

As Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams put it: “Nobody left Marcus Paige to go guard Joel last year.”

Still, the 6-foot native of Apopka, Florida and a former McDonald’s All-American, has been reliable in big moments – especially when it comes to providing toughness and a competitive edge to UNC’s perimeter play.

He hit a critical 3-pointer with 3:06 left in a November comeback against Kansas State after managing just one shot the entire game. He shook off another frustrating game by taking over in the final 5 minutes of a league win against Georgia Tech.

After shaky performances in losses to Louisville and Duke, Berry scored in double figures in 13 of the last 14 games, the exception being a 10-assist, 1-turnover game against Syracuse in the Final Four.

Along the way, he was named MVP of the Tar Heels’ run to the first ACC Tournament title and scored 20 points – including making all four of his 3-point tries – in the loss to Villanova in the NCAA final.

The burden on Berry to keep it going will only grow once the Tar Heels tip off the season Nov. 11 at Tulane.

“Whenever he competes, that’s whenever he’s at his best,” fellow junior Justin Jackson said. “What he did last year was great, we just need him to keep that going through this year.”

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