After struggling through each of UNC’s two games last week with an illness—including the shocking loss to Georgia Tech—junior point guard Joel Berry recovered just in time on Tuesday to lead the 14th-ranked Tar Heels to a thrilling 89-86 overtime win over the Clemson Tigers.

The Florida native scored 21 of his career-high 31 points after halftime–single-handedly willing UNC back into a game that, early on, looked as if it could turn into a second straight upset loss.

With both Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks struggling to convert on numerous second-chance layups in the post—not to mention the Tar Heels racking up 18 turnovers compared to just 17 assists—offense was difficult to come by for much of the night.

That all changed midway through the second half, when Berry converted a chance around the rim that kick-started a furious explosion. He sank five of his seven three-pointers over the next ten minutes, giving the Tar Heels a bail-out option on each offensive possession.

Once the final minute rolled around, however, Berry nearly undid everything he worked to gain.

Clemson received 24 points from forward Jaron Blossomgame, as its upset bid fell just short against UNC. (AP Photo/ Richard Shiro)

He committed a pair of critical turnovers—one of which came after a game-tying three-pointer by Clemson guard Marcquise Reed. This gave the Tigers a chance to take the lead at the foul line, but guard Avry Holmes missed the front end of a one-and-one with five seconds left.

Still, though, when it was all said and done, UNC head coach Roy Williams had to give praise where it was due after the Tar Heels escaped the extra period with a victory.

“I was really pleased with Joel Berry, except for the turnovers,” Williams said in his postgame press conference. “He had two crucial turnovers—which you don’t like—but man, oh man, did he make some big time shots for us.

“There’s no question about that.”

Clemson ultimately fell to 11-3 on the season, but seemed poised to extend its nine-game winning streak by following Georgia Tech’s blueprint on offense.

The Tigers–led by 24 points from star forward Jaron Blossomgame–found great success dribbling right into the heart of the UNC defense. This, of course, led to a number of high-percentage chances and plenty of drive-and-kick opportunities–which resulted in the team’s 11 made three-pointers.

Feeding off the excitement in the newly renovated Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson’s next best offensive gameplan was to use the Tar Heels’ turnovers as sparks for crowd-igniting dunks.

Although UNC was a bit shaken by these momentum shifts in the first half, that wasn’t the case later on.

The Clemson defense was the best UNC has faced all season, according to head coach Roy Williams. (AP Photo/ Richard Shiro)

Williams abandoned his 10-man playing rotation and stuck to his big guns down the stretch—hoping that Berry and the rest of the veterans could stay out there and pull this one out themselves.

“Brandon [Robinson] and Seventh [Woods] didn’t get as much time as they normally get,” Williams said. “Luke [Maye] didn’t get as much as he normally gets.

“I kept asking Joel if he was alright,” he continued. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone play 41 minutes, but to get 31 points on 19 shots—that’s pretty good.”

Against Monmouth last Wednesday, Berry scored just six points—all of which came on free throws. Still battling an illness during Saturday’s loss, the Preseason First Team All-ACC selection finished with just eight points and six turnovers.

His return to form against Clemson could not have come at a better time—especially given the way the Tigers were disrupting UNC’s offensive rhythm before he got hot.

“They guarded us, so far, better than anyone’s guarded us all season long,” Williams said. “We had so many times it’s gotten to late-clock and we didn’t handle it very well. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but their pressure was really good.”

The Tar Heels can now take solace in the fact that they are, indeed, 1-1 in conference play entering Saturday’s home showdown with NC State. Sure, it took some out-of-body heroics from Berry to escape Clemson with a win—but in this season’s ACC, nothing can be taken for granted.

“I’ve said in the preseason I thought it was gonna be the deepest league there is, and I still believe that,” Williams said. “I still believe it’s the best league in the country and the deepest.

“Every game, it could be just like this one,” the coach added. “We laid an egg on Saturday, but we bounced back tonight—and I did like our toughness in doing that.”

Up Next:

UNC will play its first home ACC game of the season against the rival NC State Wolfpack on Saturday at 8 p.m.

Game Notes:

  • During the stretch in the second half from 14:07 to 6:39, Joel Berry scored 19 of UNC’s 23 points. Justin Jackson was the team’s second-leading scorer for the game, scoring 18 points throughout the entire game.
  • Jackson missed a free throw with 22 seconds left that would have extended UNC’s lead to four points.
  • Clemson shot 53.3 percent from the floor in the first half but only 39.4 percent in the second half and overtime.
  • Berry is just the 12th Tar Heel to make at least seven three-pointers in a game.