By Turner Walston
It's been a troubling trend of late for the Tar Heels. In their last four games, Carolina has built sizable lead heading into the final stretch of the first half. In three of those contests, the Tar Heels allowed their opponents to claw back and take momentum into the locker room.
In the ACC Tournament win over Miami, the Hurricanes scored seven straight to whittle a 12-point lead down to five in the final 75 seconds of the first half. The very next night, Duke shaved six points off a 13 point lead in the final 1:46 before intermission. The Blue Devils would use an 18-4 run in the second half to run away with the game.
Overmatched Texas Southern didn't close the first half on a run last weekend in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but Arkansas did two days later. The Razorbacks were down 30-13 in the final five minutes of the half and outscored the Tar Heels 20-8 before the break. The run would continue after halftime, and Arkansas eventually led by five before the Carolina comeback.
It wasn't terribly surprising that the Tar Heels jumped out to an early lead over Butler on Friday. After all, Roy Williams likes his teams to run, and this team is more than capable. What was a little surprising was how quickly and how dramatically they got that lead. At one point, they made eight shots in a row and were shooting nearly 82 percent. Over the course of two minutes and 36 seconds, Carolina turned a one-point game into a 15-point one with a 14-0 run. They couldn't keep up that hot shooting, not at such a torrid pace, and they would miss six straight later in the half, but that start built a lead that became difficult for Butler to close.
But of course, the run came. Butler is a talented team that earned their spot in the Sweet Sixteen, and they weren't going to go away. An Andrew Chrabascz three pulled the Bulldogs within eight with 4:26 to play in the half. After a sluggish start, Butler finally had some momentum.
It was here that the Tar Heels needed to lock in, needed to #GetIntoIt. They were the deserving number one seed, and it was time to assert themselves. So they did. Justin Jackson found Luke Maye for a score. A Theo Pinson steal led to a Jackson lay-up. Maye stepped out and hit a three. Jackson hit a pair of free throws. And then, perhaps, was perhaps the play that exemplified the night.
Yes, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry combined for 50 points. Yes, each of them scored 20-plus for the first time since the Florida State game in January. Yes, it was certainly good to see the two of them playing their 'A' games. But this March night seemed to belong to Luke Maye. The Huntersville sophomore had his first career double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds. He had three offensive rebounds, and the Tar Heels scored seven points as a result of him extending possessions, including the three that were a first-half dagger.
With 2:10 to play in the period, Maye hauled in a missed Kennedy Meeks jumper. While Maye can score off an offensive rebound, he's also got an uncanny ability to see the floor from the post. He can pass quickly and flip the floor, and he can find an open guard on the perimeter. "If I don't have a shot, I try to just find whoever's the closest man open," Maye said, "and sometimes I throw it out and a guy knocks it down."
This time, it was Nate Britt, who nailed a three. "That is something that we look for, especially when Luke and Kennedy, either one gets an offensive rebound, or if they're posted up and get doubled," Britt said. "Both of them have good vision, so they can make those kind of plays, and we find the open spot to get to."
The Tar Heels weathered a brief Butler run. They'd have to do it again in the second half, but Friday they seemed much more capable of stepping on the gas and finishing a team off than in recent weeks. Carolina jumped on the Bulldogs from the tip, putting Butler, if you'll pardon the pun, back on their heels, and forced them into uncomfortable situations.
Butler got back within 10 in the second half, but the Tar Heels consistently got the answers they needed. When the lead was cut to 11, Joel Berry answered a Kelan Martin three with one of his own. Once in each half, in fact, Butler switched to a match-up zone, and Berry shot right over the top of it. When it was 10, Britt and Berry went to the free throw line to push it back to 15. When it was 11 again late, Berry and Pinson made six free throws to put it away.
"We knew that they would keep on coming back at us," Jackson said. "They missed some shots as well. They had some shots in the first and second half where we weren't necessarily there, but they just missed them, and I think that's still a testament to how hard we came out and started playing, because maybe they were a little rushed. We knew Butler was a good team. They were never going to quit, and we didn't want to have another Arkansas thing going on."
No one wanted that, and the Tar Heels proved that they'd learned the lessons of Greenville. And they proved that they are elite.