For a good three years, Roy Williams had, at times, questioned his team’s toughness, both physical and mental, and implored his players to give more – more energy, more effort, more hustle.
More of the things North Carolina did so often and so well on Tuesday night during its 107-75 victory against Oklahoma State. If ever a 32-point margin of victory didn’t do justice to the dismantling it represented, it was this here in the Maui Invitational semifinals.
All day Williams, the Tar Heels coach, had warned his players about what was ahead. The Cowboys looked good during their first four games – three of them blowouts. Back in the team hotel in the hours before the game, Williams showed his players a clip.
Outside, waves were crashing and the sun was shining. People had come to vacation, to relax.
Inside that meeting room, school was in session. Williams tried to teach.
“They’re obviously one of the best teams we played so far,” Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, said of Oklahoma State. “They play with pressure, and we watched a clip (Williams) showed us – he was like, ‘You know, that’s how we want to play.’”
Williams spoke about that in the aftermath on Tuesday, after what was his team’s most thorough, imposing victory of this young season. He spoke of his respect for Oklahoma State’s lineage, going way back to the days of the 1940s and 50s, the days when Hank Iba built Oklahoma State – then Oklahoma A&M – into one of college basketball’s earliest powers.
Williams said he saw some Iba in these Cowboys (4-1), led by coach Brad Underwood.
“Some of the greatest games I ever coached in,” Williams said, “was Kansas against Oklahoma State when Eddie Sutton was there. And Eddie Sutton played for Mr. Iba. Brad’s college coach was Jack Hartman, who played for Mr. Iba.
“I used to say they were all hand-to-hand combat. Nobody had any guns or knives or anything like that. It was just hand-to-hand combat, and it was a viciously intense game. And that’s what I saw coming out of Oklahoma State.”
The challenge, for Williams, was inspiring his team to play with same kind of viciousness, the same kind of urgency. And yet once tip-off arrived it wasn’t a challenge at all, it turned out, because as junior guard Justin Jackson said, “We could tell even on the bus ride over here that everybody was ready.”
It became evident to everyone else soon enough. The No. 4 Tar Heels needed less than five minutes to build a 16-4 lead, and their cushion remained in double digits for all but 48 seconds of the rest of the first half.
The offensive efficiency in the half-court was one thing, with the Tar Heels running their sets and, generally, creating any kind of shots they desired. The hustle, though, and the energy might have pleased Williams even more.
His players dove for loose balls. They scrambled for rebounds. At times it looked like a different sport, bodies hitting the floor in search of possessions. Once, late in the half, freshman forward Tony Bradley fell out of bounds on UNC’s offensive end, sprinting after an outlet pass that was too long.
He quickly came to his feet, ran full speed back to the other end of the court, and positioned himself just in time to secure a loose ball. And then that possession finished with his assist on Kennedy Meeks’ dunk that gave UNC a 16-point lead with about a minute left in the first half.
By then the Tar Heels were well on their way. Even after, though, Williams remembered the first several minutes, when Oklahoma State, despite its misfortune on offense, had been finishing more of those hustle plays that Williams craves.
“We got after them a little bit,” Williams said. “And Justin dove on the floor one time. Tony dove on the floor one time. After that I thought we were really into it. …
“Again, the more you do it the more it becomes infectious, but if we didn’t come in with that kind of attitude against a team that plays like Oklahoma State, we would not have been successful.”
Six games into a long season the difference for these Tar Heels (6-0), though, is that the toughness and effort Williams so often emphasizes appears to come more naturally than it has in the past. Two years ago, three years ago – even last season, before UNC reached the Final Four and played for the national championship – Williams at times had to wring the energy and effort out of his players, like water from a damp towel.
What’s different now? Hicks, with 13 points was one of six UNC players who scored in double figures, tried to explain it. The origin of UNC’s effort, he said, goes back to end of last season – to that stunning defeat in the national championship game against Villanova.
“We’re not that same team a few years ago where everybody kept calling us soft,” Hicks said. “That’s not us. We look at it as like we’re on a mission trying to get back to Monday night.”
That would be the final Monday night of the season, in early April. For now, the Tar Heels, led on Tuesday by Joel Berry’s career-high 24 points, and Jackson’s 22, secured their place on Wednesday in the final game of the Maui Invitational.
UNC, which will play late Wednesday against No. 16 Wisconsin, is seeking its fourth championship here. Mostly, though, it’s seeking to forge an identity – to put an end to the talk, once and for all, of being soft, a team that others can push around and outwork.
“We knew that they were going to come out and try to hit us first,” Berry said of Oklahoma State. “And so we had to hit them first. And I think we did a good job of doing that. We were diving on the floor. We were getting after it. We were taking them out of what they wanted to do.”
The lead quickly grew larger after halftime – to 20 points a few minutes in, and then to 30 with about 10 ½ minutes remaining. Williams had prepared his team to encounter something viscous and, instead, the Tar Heels delivered what they’d expected to see.