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Joel Berry II and Grayson Allen Are Entering Their Final Act

The UNC and Duke stars played together in AAU. They led their programs to national titles. Now, both aim to end their college careers on top—starting with one more win in the rivalry they’ve recently defined.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Joel Berry II had to score.

After North Carolina had pulled ahead by as many as 10 points in the second half of its February 8 matchup with Duke, the Blue Devils refused to go away. When Luke Maye made a jumper, Marvin Bagley III answered with one of his own. When Berry sunk a layup, Wendell Carter Jr. came through with a response. With under nine minutes left and the Tar Heels up 72-65, Berry brought the ball up the floor to meet Grayson Allen—Duke’s 6-foot-5 Energizer Bunny, as rabid as he is skilled.

Berry swung the ball to his teammate, Kenny Williams, who sent it back seconds later. As Berry received the pass, he pumped, sending Allen flying out of position. With his defender flailing, Berry drove to the left, crossed the 3-point line, and released. Allen sprang back in an attempt to recover, but was too late. By the time he could’ve jumped to try to disrupt the shot, the ball was already out of Berry’s hands, on its way through the twine.

It was the kind of moment fans and teammates have come to expect from Berry, and a shot he was confident would fall. “Any shot that I take ... I do it 100 percent and I’m very confident with it,” Berry says. “We had them on their heels and so I just wanted to continue to attack.”

Allen had a number of chances to capitalize on micro-runs and reclaim the lead for Duke, but clanked a handful of deep balls in the game’s waning minutes. Those misses sealed an 82-78 victory for North Carolina and left the Blue Devils’ standing as one of the country’s top teams this season in question. Now, with Duke’s 11-0 start to the campaign in the rearview and UNC having recently emerged as a contender, Saturday’s rematch should set the tone for both squads heading into the postseason.

Berry and Allen have played eight times over the past four years, a span during which Duke holds a 5-3 edge. Their ninth meeting, and possibly last as part of this rivalry, will take place in Cameron Indoor Stadium—an arena Berry says can get so raucous that the floor shakes and the noise drowns out everything else. “You can be standing right by Coach and you still can’t hear anything,” Berry says. It should serve as a fitting atmosphere to once again display the talents of two senior stars who have led their programs to championships, and will look to do so again this March.

With only a handful of contests left before Berry and Allen’s respective college careers come to an end, every game matters, and few matter more than this. But their intersecting paths stretch far beyond a packed gym in Durham, North Carolina. They begin farther south, in Florida.

Grayson Allen
Grayson Allen
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Allen and Berry weren’t always opponents. There was a time, back in 2013, when the players donned the same jersey. The way Berry tells it, he and Allen were both on struggling AAU teams. Berry was ESPN’s top-rated high school recruit in Florida and played for Each 1 Teach 1, whose alumni include Nets guard D’Angelo Russell and 76ers forward Ben Simmons. Allen played for the Southern Stampede who, despite having ESPN’s second-ranked player in the state, weren’t finding success. The two lived close—Berry just outside Orlando and Allen in Jacksonville—and so a plan was hatched: A representative of E1T1 called Allen, and soon the future Blue Devil shared a backcourt with the Tar Heel–to-be.

“It was a great move for us,” Berry says. “And then over the years, he just got explosive and was dunking on people. He got on our team and he just made us that much better.”

They didn’t practice together often, but Berry says the pair grew close both on the court and in hotels the nights before games. With Berry running the show and Allen coming off the bench, E1T1 won the 2013 Nike Peach Jam, the nation’s most renowned AAU tournament. Edward “Boobie” Francis, E1T1’s coach, told ESPN that he used his players’ future college plans to the team’s advantage. If Francis yelled out “Duke,” Allen would get the shot. If Francis said “Carolina,” the ball would go to Berry. And if the coach called for “Ohio State,” the shot would go to Russell, the group’s elder statesman. Berry and Allen teamed up again that summer in the 2013 Nike Global Challenge, and the next spring in the McDonald’s All American Game before heading their separate ways.

When Allen arrived at Duke in 2014, he was overshadowed by what was the biggest package deal in college basketball history. Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow had all committed to the school together, and were seen as the chosen ones who would lead Duke back to the Final Four for the first time since 2010. Allen, who’d committed to the Blue Devils months before that trio, was the forgotten member of a star-studded recruiting class.

He spent the early part of his freshman season in obscurity, playing only in spurts leading into breaks in the action. But when sophomore wing Semi Ojeleye transferred to SMU in December and junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the program in January, head coach Mike Krzyzewski trimmed his rotation to eight, Allen included. Though his minutes increased, Allen remained an afterthought to fans. To coaches and teammates, however, he was a storm waiting to make landfall.

“[Allen] was sick before the tournament and he missed a couple of practices,” former Duke point guard Quinn Cook says. “He came back and Coach was like, ‘Happy to have you back, Grayson. You’re going to be a big reason why we win this national championship.’”

That statement proved prophetic. Allen’s run of eight straight points in the national title game against Wisconsin propelled Duke to a 68-63 win, and the Blue Devils credited their second-half dominance to his spark off the bench. The next season Allen was even better, averaging 21.6 points per game en route to third-team All-American honors. Yet during that time he also developed a reputation as college basketball’s public enemy. Blowback from three separate tripping incidents during his sophomore year, as well as a fourth from his junior season, turned casual fans against him. College basketball needed a real villain; it found one in Allen.

While Allen’s intensity earned him plenty of detractors, his coaches claim it’s the trait that makes him irreplaceable. “In order to be really good, you do have to have your edge, and so everyone is saying, ‘He needs to stop doing this and stop doing that,’” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer says. “Well yes, in a way, but you also need to have it. If you watched him last year, he turned himself off a lot of times instead of turning himself on.”

People close to Allen say he feels unnatural in the spotlight. As he struggled through his junior campaign in 2016-17, it became clear that playing under a microscope had impacted his game. “I think there’s no question [the media pressure] had a big hand in [his performance],” Scheyer says. “I think it also was knowing he couldn’t do it anymore. And so instead of balancing it out, he was more conservative towards, ‘I better not screw anything up.’” Allen looked lost for much of the winter, and Duke got upset by no. 7 seed South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Allen’s roller-coaster senior season—which has included a show-stopping 37-point performance against Michigan State, a listless start to ACC play, and an impressive mid-February resurgence—has raised questions as to whether he can carry Duke to heights it hopes to reach in the coming weeks. He can answer some of them on Saturday, and cement himself as one of the defining recent figures in this rivalry. While younger, more touted Duke players have come and gone, Allen has stayed in Durham. With another win over Carolina, he’ll add to his Blue Devils legacy.

Of course, to secure that victory he’ll have to get the best of Berry, his favorite opposing player and the only person who’s matched him from the start. “I still enjoy watching Joel play even though he plays for UNC,” Allen told reporters in December. “I like watching him play just because it makes me feel like I’m back in high school.”

Joel Berry II
Joel Berry II
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The jumper that Berry hit over Allen in February may have looked familiar. About a year earlier, the Tar Heels guard turned in one of the best outings of his career, icing Allen and his then-teammate Amile Jefferson to seal a 90-83 Carolina win at home. The first basket, a driving layup past Jefferson, showcased Berry’s quickness. The second, a pull-up jumper that flew over Allen’s outstretched arms, showed his toughness. Moments later, Berry connected again to seal the game.

At the time, Berry’s performance was considered surprising. He’d had big nights before, but not like that, and certainly not against Duke. His 28 points were three shy of his career high, and his run of seven consecutive points in the second half amounted to as electric a stretch as any he’d ever had. Still, his teammates knew he had this in him. “He shoots some gutsy shots,” former Carolina center Kennedy Meeks says. “He shoots those shots in practice all the time.”

Much as was the case with Allen, Berry was overlooked when he first got to campus. He was was a top recruit nationally, but only the third-most touted member of UNC’s 2014 class. Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson were the centerpieces. Berry was expected to spell the starting point guard, Marcus Paige, and his backup, Nate Britt Jr., but not make an immediate impact.

Things were initially quiet. Berry didn’t play more than 16 minutes in any game until a Valentine’s Day loss to Pittsburgh. However, after J.P. Tokoto declared for the NBA draft in the summer before Berry’s sophomore year, the point guard was suddenly thrust into the starting lineup. Given more than triple the minutes he’d played the year before, he averaged 13.4 points and nearly four assists per game as the Tar Heels claimed the top spot in the ACC. Like rival Duke in 2015, North Carolina headed into the NCAA tournament as a no. 1 seed and marched through every foe it faced en route to the national title game, seemingly destined to hang a banner. If not for a miracle, it could have.

Following Villanova’s buzzer-beater, Carolina entered last season haunted by demons. Memories of that loss hung heavy, and talk of Duke’s projected greatness dominated most early-season conversations. Another loaded recruiting class and Allen’s return to campus meant it was championship or bust in Durham. But Duke crumbled as the year went on, finishing fifth in the regular-season ACC standings before fortuitous conference tournament victories over North Carolina and Notre Dame lifted it to a no. 2 seed in the Big Dance. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, claimed the top seed in their region.

Just as it did the previous March, Carolina pushed through its bracket, and for the second time in as many years, stood 40 minutes from a national championship, this time with only Gonzaga to beat. That game featured a dozen lead changes until Berry—the Heels’ leading scorer—stepped to the free throw line with seven seconds left and the chance to seal the win. In minutes, he’d cut down the nets, finishing on top for the first time since the Peach Jam. He cradled the ball in his hands, overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment. Carolina coach Roy Williams, sensing his struggle, asked the referee to see if Berry wanted a timeout. He did.

“I just thought about last year how it was the opposite way, and the confetti was falling for the other team,” Berry says. “To finally be in that moment, and knowing that we were going to win the national championship, had got to me.”

After that triumph, Berry thought about going pro. On April 24, he declared for the draft. A day later, he withdrew. “I think about the NBA all the time,” he says. “But being able to have eligibility to play college basketball and be here in college, those are times that you don’t get back. I do want to get to the next level, but it’ll be there.”

Berry adds: “I’ve won a national championship. I’m part of the greatest rivalry that will ever be. And to be able to experience all this, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Joel Berry II and Grayson Allen
Joel Berry II and Grayson Allen
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Berry and Allen don’t text much these days, save for a few check-ins each offseason. Their parents have stayed close, though, keeping in constant contact. And while the two may not speak often, the impact they’ve had on each other is clear. “It’s just an honor to be affiliated with someone like Grayson, and to have someone that is a part of my life like that,” Berry told Inside Carolina in February. “No too many people get these opportunities.”

As this season winds to a close, the duo looks toward a reality that goes beyond the ACC. One NBA scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me that he expects Allen to be a late first-round or early second-round pick in the 2018 draft, and Berry to be a late second-rounder or undrafted free-agent pickup. Allen boasts higher upside, according to the scout, but Berry has the advantage of having a set position and the quickness needed to defend NBA point guards. Though the scout said that certain teams take behavioral patterns into account when evaluating players, any potential hang-ups front offices may have about Allen’s professional prospects would be mollified by a strong showing on the court.

In the lead-up to Saturday’s game, Berry talked about legacy. He was hesitant to say he’d accomplished all that he’d hoped to when he got to Chapel Hill four years ago—a national championship, a pair of conference titles, and an NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player award—but said he wanted to finish his career on a high note. If that means cutting down another net in a few weeks, well, that’s above and beyond even his wildest expectations.

Whatever awaits, the titans of Tobacco Road first must take part in at least one more duel. And they’ll have to go through each other to win it.

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