MEMPHIS, Tenn. – At its best, North Carolina offers a demoralizing 1-2 perimeter punch, cleans the boards with ease, pushes tempo at a seemingly chaotic pace and plays good enough defense to turn turnovers into points and limit extra possessions.
This was the Tar Heels at their best. Flawless, no, but good enough to put Butler in an insurmountable hole early and never let the South Region’s No. 4 seed back within single digits over the game’s final 24 minutes.
UNC made 10 of 11 field goals during an eight-minute stretch to build a 30-14 lead, shot 54.4 percent from the floor, forced the Bulldogs to play at its pace and held them to 43.5 percent shooting. It was a workmanlike performance with little fanfare on the bench or in the postgame locker room.
“We have a goal that we want to get back to, and that’s getting to the Final Four,” said Joel Berry, who led all scorers with 26 points. “To be able to do that, we’ve got to take each and every game personally and we’ve got to focus in. I think that’s what we did today.”
Theo Pinson sensed this type of performance coming as the Tar Heels boarded their bus following a raucous send-off at The Peabody hotel several blocks away.
“I don’t know what it was before the game,” the junior wing said, “but I was like, ‘there’s something about today, I just feel it. It’s going to be special.’”
And so as Justin Jackson was scoring 24 points to complement Berry’s 26 and Luke Maye was stealing the show with his first career double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds), UNC announced its Final Four intentions with a thorough dismantling of a gritty team that had nine RPI Top-50 wins on its resume.
“At this stage of the year, if you don't have good offensive games or good defensive games, you go home,” Roy Williams said after UNC’s 92-80 win, “but we do need to be clicking a little bit on all cylinders.”
Berry’s and Jackson’s combined 50 points are their most since scoring 57 against their Elite Eight opponent, Kentucky, in Las Vegas on Dec. 17. Rebounding, tempo and defense are fill-in-the-blank answers for explaining any Williams squad, but the reliance on a perimeter duo for scoring is a rarity in the Hall of Fame head coach’s career.
“Me and Joel, we know, and we’ve known all year, that at the end of the day, everybody has to contribute, but how well we play is going to have a big effect on how well the rest of the team plays,” Jackson said.
While the Tar Heels were expecting consistent contact both down low and on the perimeter, the Bulldogs did not comply, failing to stay attached around screens in the first half. Berry, Jackson and Maye capitalized on the free space behind the arc to knock down six 3-pointers in the game’s first 13 minutes.
Butler began to take quick shots, missing six 3-pointers during one stretch, thereby fueling UNC’s transition game.
“We really imposed our will,” Pinson said. “We could tell they couldn’t really handle our pace, and we won the 50-50 balls. That was one of our keys today. We got a lot of 50-50 balls to get us easy layups and get everybody going... We were just executing. We were letting the game come to us, not forcing anything. That’s when we’re at our best.”
The Bulldogs made two runs, once in the first half to pull with eight and again in the final 10 minutes to pull with 10, but each time UNC countered with a spurt of its own. It was reminiscent in certain respects to the Tar Heels’ last trip to Memphis.
Eight years ago, UNC dismissed a scrappy SEC squad before coming to this very building, just steps off Beale Street, and proving its dominance against Gonzaga and Oklahoma before rolling to the Final Four in Detroit.
There’s plenty of work yet to be done, but for the Tar Heel team that played on this night, the season’s got plenty of life left.