During its first two games here in the Maui Invitational North Carolina won pretty, with lots of points and lots of moments that may well wind up on the end-of-the-season highlight tape at the team banquet.
For long stretches on Wednesday night against Wisconsin, though – and for the entire first half, really – there was nothing pretty about the tournament championship game. And yet it can’t be said that UNC won ugly amid its 71-56 victory at the Lahaina Civic Center.
Because in the second half, at least, the No. 4 Tar Heels (7-0) found their rhythm, and their outside shot, while they maintained the same kind of defensive intensity that carried them to success in the first half. In the process, UNC might just have announced itself as a national championship contender.
That’s true not necessarily because of how good 16th-ranked Wisconsin is, or might be. Or because of how good Oklahoma State, which UNC defeated by 32 points on Tuesday, might turn out to be. It’s true because of UNC’s overall, collective body of work over three days here.
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The Tar Heels’ average margin of victory in the Maui Invitational was 30 points. They won with balance in every game – with Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks both scoring at least 20 points on Monday and Joel Berry and Justin Jackson doing it on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, four UNC players finished with at least 12 points. Berry, the junior point guard who earned tournament MVP honors, led the Tar Heels with 22. Meeks, the senior forward, continued his promising start with one of the best games of his career: an assertive 15 points and 16 rebounds. He was the best post player on the floor.
By the end, it was difficult to remember that Wisconsin gave UNC fits throughout the first half. The Tar Heels led 29-20 at halftime, but it was a laborious, ugly 20 minutes. After shooting 37.9 percent in the first half, though, UNC shot 60.7 in the second.
The key stretch, for the Tar Heels, began about four minutes after halftime.
The Tar Heels led by eight with about 16 minutes remaining but then scored the next 10 points. The final three of those came after one of those hustle plays, those energy plays that Roy Williams always tries to coax out of his players.
Brandon Robinson, the freshman wing forward, provided it after Joel Berry missed a short running jump shot just outside of the lane. Wisconsin was in the best position for the defensive rebound but Robinson reached in and popped the ball loose.
Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, grabbed it, scored on a quick layup and was fouled. His free throw gave UNC a 47-29 lead with a little more than 11 ½ minutes remaining.
At the time, the Tar Heels were in the midst of a 10-0 run over the span of about 3 ½ minutes. It was a 15-2 run over about five minutes, and in those minutes UNC seized control that it never relinquished.
The victory gave UNC its fourth Maui Invitational championship. The past two times that happened, in 2004 and 2008, the Tar Heels ended the season as national champions. In the final minute, Williams emptied his bench and put in the walk-ons, and the several hundred UNC fans who made the trip filled this small gym with a chant of “Tar ... Heels.”