GLENDALE, Ariz. — Joel Berry II made a vow with his teammates a year ago.
After North Carolina lost to Villanova at the buzzer in the 2016 championship game, Berry and his powder-blue crew promised each other that they would give all that they had — every drop of it — to get back to the NCAA final and win the title.
What he didn’t know at the time was that he would sprain an ankle with three weeks left in the season. Or that he would sprain the other ankle in the Elite Eight. Or that he would be so hobbled that he would shoot 2-for-14 in the semifinal. But through all of that, he kept thinking about the pact he had made with his teammates. His word.
“I just kept on telling myself: ‘Just a couple more weeks, just give it your all,’ ” he said of his inner monologues while he underwent the extensive rehab required to keep him on the court. “Throughout that whole time, the last few weeks, that’s what has played through my head: Give it your all. Fight for your team. Just go out there and compete for your brothers.”
On Monday night, that perseverance paid off. Berry had 22 points and six assists, shot 7-for-19 and committed one turnover in 37 minutes in North Carolina’s 71-65 win over Gonzaga. “That is an amazing thing,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said of the line.
It wasn’t necessarily his stats that earned him the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, though. It was his grit.
“He really has a great deal of toughness,” Williams said, noting how swollen Berry’s ankles were after Saturday’s semifinal win over Oregon. “But the game is going to be played. You can’t get a delay if you’re not ready, you have to play. And his toughness, I think everybody on the club picked up on that. I think it inspired everybody.”
Berry said he was constantly barraged with questions from the trainers. Are you OK? Do you need to come out of the game? Each time he simply kept going. “I didn’t put myself first, I put the team first, and I did whatever I could to be able to be at 100 percent,” he said. “Everyone would want to be at 100 percent, but the difference with me is that I have heart and I have will to do whatever it takes to be able to get out there and compete with my guys . . . I was able to put my pain aside and think about them first.”
And now, whenever anyone thinks about the 2017 national champions from North Carolina, they’ll think of Berry first.