BU disposes of No. 9 UNC in Maui semis
Butler dominated No. 9 North Carolina for 28 minutes on Tuesday night in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational, to the tune of a 29-point cushion and smiles all around. Butler then survived desperation mode from the Tar Heels in the final dozen minutes and it was enough to earn a huge 82-71 win and spot in Wednesday night’s tourney championship (10:00 ET; ESPN). The opponent will be Illinois, after the Illini disposed of Chaminade in the other semifinal.
As ho-hum as a win over a top-10 team could be, the Bulldogs seized control straight from the opening tip and had UNC off its rocker by offering persistent, physical defense that set the tone. The Heels managed just 12 points in the first 15 minutes of the game and a mere 18 by the time halftime rolled around. A 35-18 lead at the break grew to 60-31 by the 12:00 mark of the final stanza.
“Let’s face it, it’s human nature – any time you get the chance to play a North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky – your focus is a little bit more enhanced, right or not,” associate head coach Matthew Graves said after the win. “They did some things defensively that really allowed us to take advantage of opportunities. Their bigs don’t like to come out on the floor out of the paint, but we also were able to be the aggressor and find ourselves open looks.”
By the time the halftime break rolled around, Butler had an 8-1 advantage in offensive rebounds and 12-0 advantage in second-chance points. Rotnei Clarke, who was a little hampered by what looked like an injured left hand in the second half, posted 14 points in the first half and was able to get some of those open looks Graves referenced. The style of defense UNC displayed lent itself to the Butler shooters finding areas within the offense, as was thought heading into the contest. Clarke’s hand, meanwhile, should be more than OK.
“He’s fine,” Graves said. “He had a cut on his hand and it wouldn’t stop bleeding, so he was trying to hide the bleeding more than anything.”
While Clarke didn’t keep his pace in the final 20 minutes, Kellen Dunham was happy to take the reins. After getting off to a slow start, Dunham scored 14 of his 17 points in the final 20 minutes and managed a 5-9 performance from the 3-point line. The team garnered a 12-25 clip from beyond the arc, with Clarke and Dunham accounting for a 9-15 showing between them.
The final five minutes were far too close for comfort, but on the same token, it’s a difficult thing to mentally stay on point once such a big lead is built. UNC went with a small lineup once in desperation mode, applying much more ball pressure on defense and forcing Butler’s hand. It’s a good lesson to learn.
“It’s really difficult,” Graves said. “There’s a fine line between knowing what shots to take while keeping your offensive rhythm and flow. We were obviously in a great flow up until about 10 minutes to go and we stopped attacking. The lesson our guys need to learn is that you need to keep attacking and keep playing because the other team starts gambling and taking chances. When they do that and you have become passive, that’s not a good formula.”
And, as Graves explained, it was just as much about the lack of defensive execution at that point.
“We really quit guarding down the stretch – we let our lack of execution offensively dictate what we were doing on the defensive end of the floor,” he said. “At that point, you still have to focus on the details – that’s how we got the 30-point lead, not what the score says.”
Safe to say it was a good problem to have, all things considered. Protecting a blowout against North Carolina – you’ll take that position every time. The more important thing coming out of this win was Butler’s ability to by the more physical, stronger team from the onset and playing with confidence. Many onlookers may have been surprised at what was happening, but the team was playing like that was supposed to be the case. And that holds water.
Butler’s work isn’t over. Just 40 more minutes and it will be.
“We came out here with the goal to play Butler basketball for 120 minutes and I think it’s safe to say we’ve done that so far, 80 minutes into it,” Graves said. “Now, we have to do it for 40 more and we could have a championship.”