Approaching late March, well down the way on the road to the Final Four, North Carolina on Friday night against Butler played every bit like a team driven by its season-long quest for redemption, and one worthy enough to complete the mission.
The Tar Heels, so driven to avenge a last-second loss in the national title game a year ago, might have been fortunate simply to be here, after its escape act on Sunday against Arkansas. After that comeback, some UNC players said they’d never been more anxious, more nervous, than they were in the final minutes.
On Friday, though, they could relax in the final minutes of an 92-80 victory against Butler in an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal. The drama, so thick in the final moments on Sunday, had long disappeared from FedEx Forum, where the Tar Heels punished the Bulldogs on both ends.
UNC, the top seed in the South Region, advanced to a regional final for the second consecutive season, and for the 27th time in school history. The Tar Heels will play either No. 2 seed Kentucky or No. 3 UCLA on Sunday, with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
This was UNC (30-7), the top seed in the South Region, at its most complete. The Tar Heels, who led 52-36 at halftime, thoroughly dominated, and did so against a quality opponent in a way they hadn’t, perhaps, since the beginning of the season.
Back then, back when the Tar Heels ran past the field in the Maui Invitational in November, they did so with enough ease to suggest that, somehow, they might be even more formidable than they were last year, before losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. Since, UNC had often searched to recapture its early-season form.
For long stretches on Friday night, they appeared to have found it. The Tar Heels, who shot so poorly against Arkansas on Sunday, scored on 19 of their first 25 possessions, and they made 13 of their first 18 attempts from the field, and shot 54 percent.
They led 22-12 less than eight minutes in, and 30-14 about midway through the first half. That was after UNC seized control with a 20-5 run over the span of about five minutes. Joel Berry, the junior point guard, scored half of UNC’s points during that run.
Entering Friday, Berry had been the subject of much scrutiny and many questions, most of them about his right ankle – he called those “annoying” on Thursday – and others about his shooting. He’d missed 11 of his 13 shot attempts against Arkansas on Sunday, after all, and played then through ankle pain.
Berry said he felt good on Thursday. His performance supported it.
He finished with a team-high 26 points, while Justin Jackson, the junior wing forward who earned ACC Player of the Year honors, finished with 24. That was one of the main differences between Sunday and Friday.
Against Arkansas, Berry and Jackson missed 20 of their 27 attempts from the field. Against Butler, they made 17 of their 31 shots, and they combined to make five 3-pointers. By halftime, they’d scored a combined 27 points, two more than they scored in 40 minutes on Sunday.
Jackson and Berry were only but a part of the story for UNC during the first half. Luke Maye, the sophomore forward, played a starring role, too.
Maye has become an important role player. Roy Williams, the UNC coach, appreciates his hustle, his knack for rebounding, his ability to keep possessions alive with his grit. Maye provided more than those admirable characteristics Friday.
By halftime he’d scored 14 points, a college high, and he’d made three 3-pointers. He finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double. Maye’s third 3-pointer, which bounced off the front of the rim before falling in, provided a sign that maybe this was UNC’s night.
Still, the Tar Heels had to work. The Bulldogs, who shot 44 percent against UNC’s aggressive defense, cut its deficit, as large as 20 points, to 10 points with six minutes remaining, and to 11 with about 3½ minutes to play. Each time, though, UNC responded, and its lead never shrunk into single digits.
In the final minutes on Sunday, UNC’s reserves sat nervously on the bench, the specter of a season-ending defeat driving their anxiety. In the final minutes on Friday, some of them entered the game. Williams emptied his bench with 45 seconds remaining. The Tar Heels’ march continued.