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Joel Berry II’s value shows as No. 7 North Carolina survives Tennessee

Tennessee v North Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, NC - DECEMBER 11: Isaiah Hicks #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels denies a shot attempt from Shembari Phillips #25 of the Tennessee Volunteers during their game at Dean Smith Center on December 11, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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No. 7 North Carolina survived a serious upset bid on Sunday evening, outlasting Tennessee 73-71 thanks to a game-saving blocked shot from freshman big man Tony Bradley.

Bradley finished with 10 points and 10 boards off the bench and Nate Britt had 1 points, seven assists and five steals all while Kenny Williams led the way with 12 points.

Here are three things we learned about the Tar Heels Sunday:

1. Joel Berry II is really important to North Carolina: Berry has been one of the best point guards in college basketball this season. Picking up from where he left off as a sophomore, Berry is the second-leading scorer for the Tar Heels and the leader in assists. He brings an element to the roster that North Carolina otherwise doesn’t have. Not only is he a threat to score in the half-court, he’s the second-leading three-point shooter on the team and the best playmaker on the roster.

In the last two games - which Berry has missed with a sprained ankle - we’ve really gotten a feel for just how valuable he is. Offensively, everything just runs more smoothly for the Tar Heels when he’s on the floor, and there’s two reasons for that.

  • A) Nate Britt is a really good back-up point guard, but UNC is at their best when he’s a back-up. He’s a good passer, a pest defensively and a guy that is really effective in transition. But he’s not much of a threat on the offensive end of the floor. Defenses can sag off of him and clog the middle or focus more of their attention on Jackson. Part of the reason that Stilman White played more minutes than Seventh Woods on Sunday was that Roy Williams needed that shooting threat on the floor.
  • B) Not only does the middle get more clogged, but defenses are able to focus their energies on Justin Jackson, who has been UNC’s leading scorer this season. Against Tennessee, Jackson finished just 3-for-15 from the floor and struggled to get into any kind of rhythm throughout the night because he struggled to find any kind of clean look at the rim.

2. Roy Williams can trust his youngsters: That may be the single-most important thing to come out of this game. UNC was more-or-less down three starters on Sunday night: Berry was injured and both Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks spent the evening glued to the bench with foul issues. As a result, Williams had to rely on lineups littered with youth and, frankly, guys that just aren’t good enough to be playing 20 minutes for North Carolina.

But here’s the thing: they all seemed to deliver. Freshman Tony Bradley finished with 10 points and 10 boards, finishing off the game with a blocked shot. Freshman Brandon Robinson had a huge tip-in to give UNC a 70-69 lead in the final two minutes, adding three assists in 17 minutes of playing time. Kenny Williams was the team’s leading scorer with 12 points. Seventh Woods only played eight minutes and had three turnovers, but he made two huge plays, scoring on a beautiful spin move in transition and, on the very next play, notching a steal and scoring a layup in transition. Those four points kept Tennessee from creating some distance midway through the half. Even Stilman White and Luke Maye got a chance to get some experience playing meaningful minutes against high-major competition.

Getting tested early in the season isn’t a bad thing.

3. Roy Williams still defends last-second shots the same way: You guys all remember this shot, right?

Well, the criticism was that Williams didn’t guard the inbounder - who, in that case, was named Kris Jenkins - opting to place Brice Johnson in front of the rim to swat away a layup attempt.

He did the same thing on Sunday afternoon, subbing in Bradley to act as an eraser at the rim. It worked because Lamonte Turner drove straight at the hoop, trying to force a shot over Bradley instead of giving the ball up to the trail-man, who was open: