On June 30, 2014, the NCAA officially reopened its investigation into academic misconduct at the University of North Carolina. The investigation, which was finally resolved just a few weeks ago, has tattered the image of the entire University, specifically the athletic program.
Before the scandal became public in 2012, UNC Men’s Basketball head coach Roy Williams brought in top tier recruits left and right, winning two National Championships in the process.
However, once coaches of opposing teams were able to use the pending NCAA investigation against UNC in their pitches to recruits, Williams and North Carolina entered a relative dry spell in recruiting.
The effects of these recruiting misses started to show during the 2012-13 season. The Tar Heels suffered major losses from the team that had made the Elite 8 a year earlier including NBA mainstays Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall, Tyler Zeller, and John Henson.
This left the 2012-13 roster depleted, and while they were still competitive, they did not reach the same levels of success that Carolina teams of recent years had.
The team was still able to make the NCAA tournament, going out in the round of 32, the earliest a Roy Williams coached Carolina team had been eliminated since 2006.
Without any significant new additions, the 2013-14 season ended the same as the last, with yet another disappointing defeat in the round of 32.
Carolina was on a dwindling path towards mediocrity. However, the commitments of three recruits in the 2014 class changed the course.
Joel Berry II
Joel Berry II committed to Roy Williams and UNC on January 21st, 2013. The Apopka, Florida native was Carolina’s first signing of a truly special class. Berry’s combination of scoring, speed, and leadership convinced Williams that he could be great at Carolina. Oh how right he was.
Justin Jackson’s first interaction with Roy Williams came when he was just 14 years old. Jackson was attending Carolina Basketball camp. Although Jackson never got to have an actual conversation with Williams, he remembers leaving camp with a new impression of the Hall of Fame coach:
“He just seemed to love coaching. He was smiling all the time. He was so good-natured.” Jackson said in a March 2017 article he wrote for the Players Tribune. “I remember thinking: Man, what a nice guy.”
Four years later, he signed on to play basketball for Williams and UNC.
Theo Pinson loves to smile. And during his high school years, he had a lot to smile about. The Greensboro, NC native was a consensus 5-star recruit, an internet sensation for his dunking skills, and he had received scholarship offers from some of the best basketball programs in the country. Pinson also loves to make other people smile. He did just that to Roy Williams on May 23, 2013, when he decided to stay home and attend North Carolina, giving UNC its final piece of the puzzle to form a special class.
Carolina’s new trio of 5-star, McDonald’s All-Americans put an end to to the relative dry spell on the recruiting trail that Williams and his staff had been encountering. The biggest thing? They committed right in the thick of the NCAA investigation, sticking with Williams and Carolina when so many other recruits, just like them, simply didn’t have the courage to do so.
The Effect of a Few Words
Jackson, Berry and Pinson had plenty of other great options. But, when Williams told the three prized recruits that everything was going to be ok, they believed him. “I trusted coach with everything that I had.” Pinson said. “He told me nothing was going to happen. This is where I wanted to be.”
After losing out on recruiting battles for several years to fellow blue bloods like Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas, Roy Williams got the recruiting victory he desperately needed.
As much hype as there was around Berry, Jackson, and Pinson coming out of high school, nothing was handed to them at Carolina. In a March 2017 article for the Players Tribune, Jackson recalls a “welcome to college moment” the freshmen experienced during a January 2015 practice.
Carolina was coming off a 71-70 loss to Notre Dame and Williams was pushing them hard.
During a strenuous conditioning period, Williams stopped, blew his whistle, and singled out Berry, Jackson, and Pinson.
He then asked if they wanted to go home. Not like back to the dorms home, HOME home.
When the three freshmen didn’t answer, he threatened to send them home right then and there, with a piercing look on his face.
The freshmen again had no answer and Williams pointed back to the line, signifying more running.
After practice had ended, Jackson remembers looking up at the rafters of the Dean E. Smith Center, looking at the ACC title banners, national championship banners, and the jersey with No.23 on it.
He realized Carolina was much bigger than just Berry, Pinson, and himself.
… And the Season Began
That first season, UNC was returning most of its nucleus from the past two years, led by junior guard Marcus Paige, a reigning second team All-American. The Tar Heels had an up and down season in 2014-15, ending with a sweet 16 loss to Wisconsin.
Roy Williams’ 2014 recruiting class was one of the highest ranked he has ever brought in during his tenure at UNC. However, the freshmen did not offer too much of an immediate impact.
Out of Carolina’s freshmen trio, Justin Jackson was the highest in scoring at 10.7 PPG. The Tomball, Texas native had a solid all-around year, and he found his way into the Tar Heels starting lineup.
Berry struggled to find heavy minutes, as he was stuck behind veterans Paige and Nate Britt at the point guard position.
Pinson meanwhile, suffered a broken foot during non conference play, causing him to miss an extended period of time. Even when he recovered from the injury, he was never really able to find a rhythm, finishing the season averaging just 2.8 PPG.
After a mostly underwhelming freshmen year, the 2015-16 season offered promise for the now sophmore trio of Berry, Jackson, and Pinson.
All three Tar Heels saw increases in both minutes and production, with Berry and Jackson earning spots in the starting lineup and Pinson finding more opportunities to contribute. UNC finished with its best record since 2012 at 33-7, and each member of the sophomore trio played a big part in it.
Jackson was a solid starter with a deadly floater, who could take over games at times. Pinson was one of the team’s best on ball defenders, and he could always provide a spark off the bench. Berry was one of Carolina’s most consistent players, and he even finished as the team’s second leading scorer, behind First-team All-American Brice Johnson.
Chemistry Set In
Heading into the NCAA tournament, Carolina was hitting its stride, and Berry certainly was a major reason why.
The sophmore guard was playing the best basketball of his career, and was coming off an ACC tournament MVP winning performance in which he averaged 17.0 PPG and 8.0 APG.
With all three sophomores playing prominent roles, North Carolina ran through their first five games of the NCAA tournament, with the closest one being a 14-point victory over Notre Dame in the Elite 8. Not every Tar Heel was prepared for a close game on the biggest stage, but, thats what they got when they faced Villanova in the National Championship game.
The stage didn’t scare Joel Berry, though. Berry finished the game with 20 points, including 4-4 from downtown. He proved that he has the heart of a champion, a trait he would put on display again one year later.
The majority of the Tar Heels, however, were clearly playing nervous and it was affecting their play on the court. UNC was the better team, but they were letting the big one slip away.
We all know how the game ended. It was heartbreaking, soul-crushing, and seemingly unfair. Berry, Jackson, and Pinson took it hard but they didn’t let it break them. Instead, they used it as motivation. They knew they had unfinished business.
Adversity and the Goal of Redemption
This created a common goal among the 2016-17 Tar Heels: Redemption. Each returning member of the 2016 squad knew how it felt to reach college basketball’s biggest stage, and they knew how it felt to have their dream denied. Redemption became a common theme in everything the Heels did in 2017, and it fueled them to special levels of success.
Before the 2016-17 season even began, adversity struck. On Oct. 21, 2016, it was announced that Theo Pinson had suffered a broken foot, and that he would be out indefinitely. This was a huge blow for the Tar Heels, but especially for Pinson. He had suffered the same injury twice before, most recently during his freshman year. Before the injury, Pinson was expected to step into a starting role. He brought a little bit of everything to the table, and his contributions would be missed.
Despite Pinson’s injury, UNC got off to a strong 7-0 start to the season, solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the nation. Berry and Jackson were leading the way, as the team’s two highest leading scorers.
The Tar Heels hot play continued, and they finished non-conference play with just two losses. As good as Carolina had been, however, they had yet to secure a win over a marquee opponent in some time.
Time to Shine
The opportunity arose when Florida State came to town as the ninth ranked team in the country. Berry, Jackson, and Pinson absolutely dominated the game, leading the Tar Heels to victory. Berry and Jackson combined for 48 points, but Pinson stole the show in his third game back from injury. He secured a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and made some huge plays near the end of the game to seal the Carolina victory. Following this win, it became clear that UNC had all the makings of a National Championship winning team.
As conference play trudged on, the Tar Heels continued to dominate the ACC. Justin Jackson was a big reason why. The homeschooled kid from Tomball, Texas was playing as well as anyone in the country, averaging 18.9 PPG. On March 4, Carolina clinched its second straight ACC regular season title with a win over the Duke Blue Devils. The next day, Jackson was named ACC Player of the year.
It was time for the post season and the theme of “redemption” was evident. UNC had earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament for the second straight year. In Carolina’s opening game against Texas Southern, the injury bug struck again, and this time it hit Joel Berry. Late in the first half, Berry stepped onto an opponents foot awkwardly, spraining his ankle. The injury put a damper on UNC’s big win. Everyone knew that the team’s title hopes were finished if Berry was forced to miss time. He was nothing less than the team’s heart and soul.
In the days leading up to Carolina’s round of 32 matchup against Arkansas, Tar Heel fans around the country were constantly refreshing their phones searching for updates on Berry. In the end, Berry was cleared to play, but he was far from 100 percent.
UNC got off to a hot start, but cooled off quickly after a run by the Razorbacks at the end of the first half. With just a few minutes left in the game, Carolina found themselves down five points. The game easily could have gone either way, but it didn’t look good for UNC. A couple big plays later, however, Carolina had escaped with a win, capped off with a Justin Jackson dunk.
After cruising to an easy Sweet 16 win over Butler, Carolina was faced with an Elite 8 matchup versus Kentucky. The Tar Heels had fallen to the Wildcats earlier that year off a game winning three from freshman sensation, Malik Monk. Now, it was time for revenge.
UNC got off to a good start, in large part due to Berry’s scoring, Pinson’s all-around contributions, and Jackson’s stout defense on Monk. However, things took a turn for the worse on a Berry drive to the basket late in the first half. He took a hard fall, spraining his OTHER ankle in the process. Berry was now playing on two bad ankles, a seemingly insurmountable setback. Not for Joel Berry.
At the start of second half, Berry jogged out onto the court with the rest of his teammates, continuing to make big plays. The floater that he hit with a few minutes to go was the definition of clutch, giving the Tar Heels the momentum they needed to finish off “big blue nation.”
Luke Maye made sure of this, obviously.
After four hard fought victories, Carolina was back in the Final Four. The Tar Heels were just two wins away from achieving redemption, and they could feel it. UNC’s opponent in the National Semi-final would be the Oregon Ducks, a team that had been good all year but had gotten especially hot recently. The Ducks were led by sharpshooting wings Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks, as well as lock-down defensive center, Jordan Bell.
Once the game began, it was obvious: Joel Berry wasn’t even close to being fully healthy. The swelling in both Berry’s ankles had only gotten worse since Carolina’s last game, and it was causing him to struggle dramatically on the court. Fortunately for UNC, Justin Jackson stepped up in a big way.
He scored 22 points, hitting some huge shots down the stretch for the Tar Heels. Theo Pinson helped out by securing a huge rebound with just seconds to go, and all of the sudden Carolina was just one win away from a National Championship.
April 3, 2017
It had been exactly 364 days since Kris Jenkins’ last second shot had ruined Carolina’s championship hopes, and now they were finally back. The Tar Heels were now just 40 minutes away from accomplishing their goal, but it certainly was not going to be easy.
Their opponent, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, had been one of the best teams in the country all year, and they had proved it throughout the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs were lead by All-american guard Nigel Williams-Goss and menacing big man Przemek Karnowski. On top of this, Berry’s ankles were still very swollen after playing a game on them just two nights before.
Once the ball was tipped, both teams came out cold. Finally, Theo Pinson broke the ice with a fast break dunk several minutes into the game. This game was truly a defensive battle, as both sides struggled to put the ball in the basket.
Despite his pair of bad ankles, Joel Berry came out firing and hitting shots, keeping Carolina in the game. Berry finished the night with 22 points including four three pointers, a true performance of a champion.
As the game progressed, it became clear that it was going to go down to the wire, and either team could prevail. In the final minutes of the game, Berry, Jackson, and Pinson each had their own respective moments that helped give Carolina the title.
With just under two minutes to go, the Tar Heels found themselves down two points with the ball. Instead of panicking, Pinson confidently found Jackson under the basket for an and-1 in what was a beautiful look. Jackson made the free throw, giving Carolina the lead for good.
A few plays later, senior forward Isaiah Hicks hit a huge shot to extend UNC’s lead to three. What occurred next were some of the greatest seconds in the history of Carolina Basketball.
Williams-Goss drove to the basket only to have his shot blocked by Kennedy Meeks, Berry grabbed the rebound and pushed it ahead to Jackson, whose dunk gave Carolina a five point lead. On the ensuing possession, Meeks intercepted a wild pass, threw it ahead to Berry, who then quickly drew a foul. Tears were shed. Hugs were shared. The goal of redemption had finally been accomplished, and the Tar Heels were National Champions.
As the confetti fell, and the championship shirts were being distributed, Theo Pinson headed straight for his family in the stands, enjoying a special moment with his loved ones. He then, of course, headed to center court to be the star of the trophy presentation, in true Theo Pinson style.
Moments later, just after the trophy was presented, Joel Berry II was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. The kid on two bad ankles from Apoka, Florida, had carried Carolina to a National Title, cementing himself as one of the greatest point guards in UNC history.
This was a particularly special moment for Justin Jackson. Even though he was not a senior, he knew this had been his last game in a UNC jersey. After the phenomenal season he had just enjoyed, his NBA draft stock was through the roof, and declaring for the draft was an opportunity he could not pass up. To be able to win a championship in his final game as a Tar Heel is likely something he will cherish for the rest of his life.
It has been seven months since Berry, Jackson, and Pinson played their final game together. Jackson just kicked off his NBA career with the Sacramento Kings a few weeks ago, and Berry and Pinson are preparing to begin their senior seasons at Carolina.
The academic scandal that had been plaguing UNC at the time of Berry, Jackson, and Pinson’s commitment has now been resolved, and Carolina athletics received zero penalties from the NCAA.
Throughout their careers, Berry, Jackson, and Pinson were constantly told how they didn’t go to class, that they would be receiving postseason bans, and that banners would come down. None of that happened. What did happen? They cut down the nets as National Champions.
Despite only playing three seasons together at UNC, this trio has already cemented themselves as one of the greatest recruiting classes in the history of Carolina Basketball. Together, they won a combined 92 games, two ACC regular season championships, one ACC tournament championship, reached two Final Fours, and won a National Title.
There isn’t a class in Carolina history that comes close to matching those achievements. This group didn’t just keep Carolina basketball afloat, it wrote its own chapter in the program’s storied history. Their journey was truly special and unique; from a tough freshmen season, to heartbreak on college basketball’s biggest stage, to redemption a year later. This is the class that saved Carolina Basketball.
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