GLENDALE, Ariz. —Joel Berry played six games in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, the first three on one bad wheel and the second with a matching set. He never made any secret of the fact this was not always a delightful experience, with his statements in between games and occasionally with his play on the basketball court.
He fought through all of that, though, to produce the only consistently great performance on either side of Monday night’s NCAA Championship victory over Gonzaga. He was an easy choice as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, an honor that automatically means his jersey will be honored in the rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center along with those of James Worthy, Sean May, Wayne Ellington and so many others.
Instead of a jersey, though, it might be more fitting to hang an ankle brace in his honor.
“I’ve been hurt this whole time, since I injured my right ankle, and I haven’t played at 100 percent,” Berry said. “I just tried to fight through, just tried to get lost in the game and not worry about it. There were times when I made a move and I’m like, ‘Ah, that hurt!’ But I walked it off. That’s why you saw when I was on the court, I never stood still. I was always walking back and forth. I just didn’t want it to stiffen up.”
After a sporting year that began with Kris Jenkins’ buzzer shot to carry Villanova past North Carolina in the 2016 NCAA Championship, followed by an NBA title won with Kyrie Irving’s heroic 3-pointer, then a World Series that required extra innings and produced an historic Chicago Cubs victory, a College Football Playoff decided in the final minute and a Super Bowl that needed overtime, we probably were due for a clunker. And that’s what we got at University of Phoenix Stadium: 86 missed shots, 20 missed free throws, an absurd number ofdubious officiating judgments and decisions.
“The game is so big that you get so hyped up. You have to control your emotions and be able to play within yourself,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Justin Jackson's 0-for-9 from the 3-point line, and he rushed so many of them. In a normal game he may not have done that.
“So I think it was the magnitude of the game had a lot to do with it and the defenses on both ends, on both teams, I think had something to do with it.
Had Berry’s 22-point, six-assist, two-steal, one-turnover performance against Gonzaga been surrounded by a better basketball game, it might have had an epic quality to it. Instead, it was enough to produce a victory. And a championship.
“If I could have, I would have taken a picture and showed you guys all the bruising I had on my ankle,” Berry said. “I played games with the bruising on there. I never sugarcoat anything. I fought through it. I was legit hurt.”
Berry injured his right ankle in a comfortable first-round victory over Texas Southern, then tweaked the left in the first half of a difficult win against Kentucky in the South Region final. Typically a 15-point scorer and 40-percent 3-point shooter, he was a combined 2-of-13 from deep against Kentucky and national semifinal opponent Oregon and scored a total of 22 points in those two games.
In the championship game, though, Berry nailed his first 3-pointer within fiveminutes, 12 seconds after Gonzaga's Josh Perkins had connected on the game's first long-range jumper. Berry did that again as the game grew more serious, knocking in a three to take back the lead just 19 seconds after Nigel Williams-Goss made one to put the Zags up with 4:39 left.
“The type of player that we know he is, we pretty much knew it wasn’t going to affect him,” forward Justin Jackson said. “He might be hurt for the next two weeks. Who knows? But at the end of the day we knew he was going to push through this game.”
Berry played well enough Monday night that it did not seem unreasonable to ask: Was he really hurt that badly?
Williams had an answer for that, one that made his point about Berry, his program and maybe someone else out there.
“They were swollen up after the game on Saturday,” Williams said. “We don’t lie. We don’t flop on charges, and we don’t lie.”