Roy Williams had somewhere to be on Wednesday night and it wasn’t here, in a room beneath the court where North Carolina had just won the Maui Invitational with a 71-56 victory against Wisconsin. The celebration lasted 10 or 15 minutes.
Now there was a press conference, Williams answering questions, the time growing closer.
“Get it up quickly,” he said toward the end of it, ready to leave. “I’m going to Longhi’s, I don’t want to be late. It’s the only time I’ve been this year. I usually go once every year.”
Williams has his routine when he comes back here, to Maui, every four years for this tournament. There are those trips to Longhi’s, a local restaurant where on Wednesday night they were charging $39 for a plate of fresh Hawaiian fish. And there are, more often than not, championship celebrations.
The Tar Heels (7-0) won the Maui Invitational for the third time under Williams, and they won it with a variety of playing styles: from scoring more than 100 points in consecutive games on Monday and Tuesday, to grinding out a victory on Wednesday against No. 16 Wisconsin (4-2), which is known for its slower pace.
UNC won those three games – against Chaminade, a Division II school, on Monday and then against Oklahoma State on Tuesday before the Wednesday championship – by an average of 30 points. The Tar Heels made it look easy, usually, and none of those games were competitive in the final 10 minutes.
And yet Williams on Wednesday was more interested in making his dinner reservation than he was in espousing praise on his players. It wasn’t long ago that the primary question surrounding UNC was how it went about filling the void left by the departed Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson.
Now there’s a new question: How are the Tar Heels this good, this soon, without those two?
Williams, his mind already on the bus if his body couldn’t be, didn’t want to hear it, though.
“Let’s not jump on the dadgum victory celebration yet,” he said. “We played a team last night and a team tonight that I think would be ranked in the top 50 to 75. We haven’t played murder’s row yet. Talk to me after we play Indiana, at Indiana. …
“But I’m not going to go out and make my reservations for the Final Four. I don’t even know where the hell it is. … I’m serious. I’m not jumping on any boat trying to figure out how great we are. We can stink it up with the rest of them.”
That hasn’t happened yet, though. The closest UNC has come to that was last Friday in a sloppy, sluggish 15-point victory at Hawaii. Williams challenged his players afterward and they responded with a decisive 43-point victory against Chaminade.
Then Williams implored his team to play with toughness and tenacity against an Oklahoma State team that Williams described as “vicious.” And then, on Wednesday, Williams emphasized the importance of limiting Wisconsin’s offensive rebounding, and the Tar Heels excelled there, too.
Three days, three games, three missions accomplished. Wisconsin and UNC both entered Wednesday ranked among the top five nationally, according to kenpom.com, in offensive rebounding percentage. By halftime, Wisconsin had missed 19 shots from the field and hadn’t rebounded any of them.
Without second chance opportunities, the Badgers couldn’t overcome their 29.6 percent shooting. And UNC, not the sharpest itself, either, during those first 20 minutes, did enough to take a 29-20 halftime lead – all because the Tar Heels stymied the Badgers in an area of the game where the Badgers thought they had hope.
“That was the difference in the game right there,” Tony Bradley, the freshman forward, said of the rebounding. “That’s the difference in the score. If they would have had more offensive rebounds, the game would have been closer. But we did our job.”
It’s early – only seven games into a season that could last as long as 41 games if UNC reaches the final Monday night – but Bradley and his teammates are developing a knack for doing their job. One example came midway through the second half on Wednesday night, during a critical juncture.
In the span of about five minutes, the Tar Heels had turned a six-point lead into a 15-point lead. They were trying to remove any hope Wisconsin might have of rallying. Joel Berry, the tournament MVP who led UNC with 22 points, missed a short jump shot.
The Badgers were in position for the rebound but Brandon Robinson, the freshman wing forward, persisted on the play. He knocked the ball loose, up in the air, and Kennedy Meeks secured it, scored on a layup and was fouled. He made the free throw to give UNC an 18-point lead.
It was only one play, one moment, in a game-turning run that spanned several minutes. And yet Robinson’s hustle was perhaps more than just one play, because it kept the momentum going and helped bury the Badgers in a hole that was ultimately too deep.
Meeks, who finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds, might have played his best college game. Williams made the argument afterward.
“And I’ve been really tough on Kennedy,” he said. “It has been well deserved, but I have been really, really tough on him. I was really proud of the way he played tonight.”
After Meeks’ three-point play gave UNC that 18-point lead, Wisconsin never cut its deficit to fewer than 15 points. The Badgers also never did manage to secure many of their misses, and they finished with four offensive rebounds.
In the final minute, Williams emptied his bench. The hundreds of UNC fans who made the long trip to Hawaii began chanting familiar chants, and the Tar Heels celebrated their fourth Maui Invitational championship.
The two previous times they won here, in 2004 and 2008, portended the national championships that came later those seasons. Williams was aware of the history, and said it “remains to be seen” whether this team can become as good as those.
He was in no mood, though, to entertain the thought that, somehow, the Tar Heels might be better than they were a year ago. UNC finished last season in the national championship game, on the other side of what was perhaps the greatest finish in NCAA tournament history.
Without Paige and without Johnson, the thought was that it would take time for UNC to develop. It hasn’t exactly happened that way, though, regardless of competition that Williams discounted.
“We lost them physically,” Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, said of last year’s senior class, “but they taught us a lot. Especially Brice and Marcus, they taught us a lot about what it takes to get there, the hard work. Seeing Marcus in the gym, both of them all the time, working and stuff like that.
“We really learned from it, and I guess we’re just trying to pick up where they left off.”
As he was talking, a team official came out back to tell Hicks and a couple of other players that it was time to get going. It was time to go to Longhi’s, a familiar stop for Williams amid the familiar feeling of winning a championship here.