MAUI, Hawaii -- Butler coach Brad Stevens knew it was coming. Despite the fact that his team was beating North Carolina by 29, and despite the fact the Bulldogs were outplaying UNC in every facet of the game, a Tar Heel comeback was lurking.
Roy Williams was pleased with how UNC rallied ... just not how it fell behind so far.
“When you’re up by 30 or 29 — or whatever we were — you know there’s enough talent on that other bench to make it up quick,” Stevens said. “When you’re playing a program like Carolina, you know their run is coming.”
Indeed, UNC started to chip away at the deficit in spurts. With 11 minutes remaining in the game, a Reggie Bullock 3-pointer cut the lead to 26. P.J. Hairston followed with a personal 11-0 run, and UNC went on a 14-point swing in fewer than two minutes.
Another run inside the final five minutes cut the lead to six, but that was the closest the Tar Heels would get. The desperation 3-pointers clanked off the rim and Butler put the game away at the free throw line.
Despite a 23-point turnaround in the back end of the second half, UNC (4-1) suffered its first loss, 82-71, on Tuesday.
When the Tar Heels were making their comeback, they ramped up their defensive pressure and forced Butler into 11 second-half turnovers. On the other end, they were driving into the lane and finishing at the rim with confidence. UNC — for the only time all game — was the more aggressive team at that juncture.
“I loved the activity of my team down the stretch; I loved the way they fought,” said UNC coach Roy Williams, who was notably frustrated with the amount of mental errors his team committed in the opening half. “We just dug too deep a hole against a very, very good team.”
Although UNC dropped the game, marking the first time in six trips that UNC won’t play for the Maui Invitational championship, this young Tar Heel team grew up during the course of the comeback. Freshman point guard Marcus Paige, who finished with 13 points, maintained control and drained the 3-pointer that pulled the Tar Heels within six. Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto were on the court for large chunks of time during the run, and Bullock and Hairston stepped into sparkplug roles.
Williams was disappointed that his team let Butler take the fight to them, but he was happy to say that, at least, the Tar Heels never threw in the towel.
“We showed some toughness. I like our competitiveness, and I like the fact that we’re not going to quit,” Williams said.
It was night and day between the two halves for UNC. The Tar Heels netted 53 points after the break as opposed to 18 in the first frame — the fewest points a Williams-coached team has ever scored in an opening half.
An impressive 40-17 second-half run than spanned 11 minutes of play brought the Lahaina Civic Center to a frenzy, but it was too little, too late.
It’s a tough pill to swallow to dominate the last 10 minutes of a game like UNC did and still take the loss. Were it not for a 17-point halftime deficit, the Tar Heels would have been playing for a championship on Wednesday.
But the only victory UNC would glean from its matchup with Butler is a moral one. A spectacular run, where the Tar Heels played an inspired brand of basketball that fills the future with optimism, is still for naught when it can’t overcome a first-half shellacking.
UNC instead is left with lessons.
Bullock said he realized the Tar Heels aren’t practicing as hard as they should be. Hairston learned that feisty defense triggers comebacks, and Williams said it’s his job to make sure his team is more ready to match the toughness of the opponent.
All of those played a part in pitting the Tar Heels in an ultimately insurmountable hole.
As James Michael McAdoo pointedly said, “We just didn’t show up ready to play.”
Not for the first 30 minutes, at least. Another lesson learned.