LAHAINA, Hawaii – Roy Williams made sure to tell his players on numerous occasions throughout the preseason that Brice Johnson and his rebounding were not walking through the Smith Center door. No such comments were warranted at the Lahaina Civic Center on Wednesday, as the fourth-ranked Tar Heels controlled the boards from tip to final buzzer in their 71-56 win over No. 16 Wisconsin in the Maui Invitational championship game.
Greg Gard, the Badgers’ second-year head coach, told reporters roughly 24 hours before the title game’s tipoff that rebounding had become his team’s identity. The stats agreed: Wisconsin entered Wednesday’s matchup with a plus-19.2 rebounding margin.
Roy Williams, however, has similar views on the importance of rebounding, and his team showcased that belief in owning the glass against the Badgers. UNC outrebounded its opponent by a 38-26 margin.
The Tar Heels have won the rebounding margin by 12 or more in each of their first seven games this season. UNC also has pulled down 113 offensive rebounds to their opponents’ 127 defensive rebounds.
“In the preseason exhibition game, we were terrible boxing out,” Williams told reporters after the game. “And guys have shot pretty bad percentages against us, so there's a lot of opportunities to get offensive rebounds. But that's been a focus of ours since the first day of practice, even before the exhibition game, and after the exhibition game it's continued to be a focus. And they're getting better at it. There's no question.”
Wisconsin ranked third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (45.5), yet failed to rebound any of its first 23 errant field goal attempts. The Badgers’ first offensive rebound came with 12:18 to play, and three of their four offensive boards came on one possession. UNC outscored Wisconsin 10-1 in second-chance points.
“That was the difference in the game right there,” freshman center Tony Bradley said. “That was the difference in the score. If they had gotten more offensive rebounds, the game would have been closer, but we did our job. Coach told us to box out to the best of our abilities and we did that.”
Kennedy Meeks set the tone early, pulling down four rebounds before the first media timeout and 12 by halftime. The senior center set a career high with 16 rebounds, less than than two weeks after setting a career high with 15 rebounds in the opener at Tulane. Five Tar Heels pulled down at least three rebounds.
“I think that's the most important part of the game when we do a great job rebounding,” Meeks said.
UNC currently ranks fourth nationally with a rebounding differential of plus-17.3.