Joel Berry II showed no ill effects of ankle injury that limited him last weekend, leading North Carolina with 26 points in South Regional semifinal win over Butler. (Photo by University of North Carolina Athletics)
When prefacing Friday's matchup with Butler, Joel Berry II emphasized one tenet over all others, continually harping on North Carolina sticking to what they do best, getting up and down the floor and preventing the Bulldogs from capitalizing on a missed opportunity.
The junior point guard, injured ankle and all, personally saw to it that the advice imparted on his teammates would be adhered to.
Playing like the dynamic floor general that earned a second team all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, Berry took matters into his own hands with his best game of the NCAA Tournament at the most opportune of times, leading all scorers with 26 points as his Tar Heels motored past Butler to advance to the South Regional final, defeating the Bulldogs in a convincing 92-80 victory at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.
"We didn't want to lose," Justin Jackson added as UNC (30-7) used a 15-2 first-half run to distance themselves from Butler and into the Elite Eight for the 26th time in program history, where they will face either Kentucky or UCLA Sunday for a trip to the Final Four. "For us, we tried to stay focused and stay poised, and (we) just continued to play. I felt like we did that today, and we came out with it."
"To start the game, I kind of felt like I was moving freely," said Jackson, who scored 24 points of his own to supplement Berry's offense. "My teammates were finding me, and it was just up to me just to step up and knock in the shots."
On the heels of a tense second-round matchup where the Tar Heels needed a 12-0 run to escape Arkansas' upset attempt, the resolve on a night where every last drop of energy was needed to withstand a resilient Bulldogs squad was greatly appreciated.
"Butler just keeps coming at you," head coach Roy Williams admitted. "And I'm thrilled with this group, with what they've accomplished. "We still let them score more than we wanted, but we're still up here talking with a smile on our face."
Butler (25-9) eventually pulled within nine points late in the opening stanza, but UNC countered with a 15-3 spurt that brought their advantage back into a double-digit margin, where it remained for the duration of the evening. Andrew Chrabascz led the Bulldogs with 21, but arguably the biggest contributor was sophomore Luke Maye, who provided the Tar Heels with 16 points and 12 rebounds for his first career double-double.
"I just want to go out there and play the best I can, and try to limit the mistakes I make," said Maye, who was the beneficiary of Isaiah Hicks' foul trouble. "Today, I got a couple of shots to fall in and felt pretty confident. They kept going, and it gave us the win today. That's the biggest thing we wanted, and we're moving on to Sunday."