GLENDALE, Ariz. – The question was meant in jest to Roy Williams, a throwaway line intended to compliment the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
So Roy, was Joel Berry II just sandbagging us all? The two sorest ankles in the state of North Carolina had somehow just allowed the junior point guard to score, defend and be enough for the Tar Heels Monday night.
Heck, Berry couldn’t have been that bad off if he was arguably the difference in the program’s. Except Williams didn’t take the question in jest.
“We don’t flop and we don’t lie,” Williams shot back.
As if North Carolina needs to have its honesty questioned again. The game was as incongruous as the result. Most games with this many athletes are played above the rim. This was played closer to the floor in scrums and with flailing bodies.
It also came with a parallel narrative because of the ongoing NCAA investigation.
“We’ve been investigated 77 times, it seems …,” Williams said. “I had to start defending myself four years ago. I started out saying I hope it’s overwith before I retire. Now I’m saying I hope it’s over before I die.”
The NCAA enforcement staff won’t have to go to the video monitor to see if Roy’s third championship counts,. Unless there is something we don’t know about, this one is safely in the book.
The first chapter, then, begins with Berry. His 22 points, six assists and one turnover in 37 minutes were gutty because you could almost see the guts spilling out on the floor.
Since the beginning of the tournament, the 6-foot-1 junior from Florida has played with a pair of sprained ankles. The first one, the right, was injured in the NCAA opener against Texas Southern. The second was twisted in the regional final against Kentucky.
That led almost directly to Berry shooting 27 percent (9 of 33) in the two games in the desert.
“If I could have I would have taken a picture and showed you guys all the bruising that I had on my ankles,” Berry said amid the confetti celebrating Carolina’s 71-65 win. “I played games with the bruising on there. I fought through it.
“We don’t do any of that.”
Flopping or lying?
“I was legit hurt. It’s the heart and the way I grew up.”
For the record, no one doubted the condition of Berry’s ankles. In the national semifinal against Oregon, he shot 2 of 14. His two missed free throws at the end almost lost the game. He estimated his ankle health level at 85 percent.
“That’s why when I was on the court I never stood still,” he said. “I was always walking back and forth. I didn’t want it to stiffen up.”
More than that, it was obvious Berry was struggling, unable to properly elevate and limited on his ability to slash. In the championship game, Berry took the most shots (19), made the most shots (seven), including the most threes (four).
Statistically, it was not a great March Madness, into April. In the tournament, Berry shot 29 percent (24 for 82). There’s your flawed MOP.
But hallelujah for the healing power of adrenaline. With 8:02 left, Berry was involved in a key “play” in a game that featured 12 lead changes and 11 ties. Berry was fouled by Gonzaga giant Przemek Karnowski but the Zags’ 7-foot-1 post accidently raked Berry across the face.
Karnowski was called for a flagrant foul, basically negating Berry’s foul.
“That gave him his fourth foul,” Berry said. “I didn’t try to sell it or anything. He definitely grabbed me by my head. It was a big play.”
Amid the screaming, yelling, the unbridled joy up on the podium afterward, Berry pointed to the inside of his left bicep.
In stylized script was inked the word, “Believe.”
“Every time I’m always believing,” he said. “I told myself the whole game, just believe in your team, believe in yourself. I haven’t played at 100 percent. I just tried to fight through it, just tried to get lost in the game and not worry about it. There were times I tried to make a move and I’m like, ‘Ah, that hurt.’
“That’s why I have this ‘Believe’ on the inside of my arm.”
No flopping, no lying. No way they’re going to take this championship away.
“I think,” Berry said, “we deserve this.”