No buzzer-beater was needed this time for Butler to advance in the Maui Invitational, although No. 9 North Carolina made it interesting at the end before falling 82-71.
Bulldogs senior guard Rotnei Clarke -- who made the game-winning 3-pointer against Marquette on Monday night -- scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half Tuesday, helping break the Tar Heels’ 10-game winning streak in the Invitational and pushing Butler into Wednesday’s title game. UNC cut a 29-point deficit to as little as 77-71 with 63 seconds left when freshman point guard Marcus Paige followed a three-point play with a 3-pointer. But the Bulldogs’ early dominance was too much to overcome.
Turning point: Leading 12-7 in the first half, Butler ripped off a 9-0 run -- scoring on a floater, a 3-pointer and two putbacks. That breakaway -- which saw Clarke score five points, the Bulldogs pull down two offensive rebounds, and UNC commit two turnovers while looking befuddled on offense and outplayed on defense -- was a sign of things to come.
Why Butler won: Experience. Toughness. Intensity. The team that appeared so lifeless during a 15-point loss at Xavier last week looked just the opposite Tuesday night, pouncing early and beating the Tar Heels on the boards (36-27), to loose balls and in the paint. Clarke shot his team ahead in the first half, and Kellen Duham (17 points) came on strong in the second.
Why UNC lost: Let’s count the ways. The Tar Heels pulled down only one offensive rebound in the first half (with 11:03 left, when Leslie McDonald grabbed a P.J. Hairston miss, and turned it over). They didn’t shoot a free throw until 13:13 remained in the second half (Hairston hit only one). UNC’s 18 first-half points were its lowest total since 1996. And even when it put together a 14-2 run midway through the second half (including 11 points from Hairston), UNC trailed 62-45.
Star(s) of the game: Clarke and Dunham finished with 17 points apiece for Butler.
What it means for Butler: That the little things do, indeed, count. There was some concern the Bulldogs had made only 27 percent of their 3-pointers entering this game, and their 12-for-25 (48 percent) 3-point shooting effort Tuesday was a good sign. But more important was their aggressive play in the lane, their ball control and the way they wore down the Tar Heels (both mentally and physically) early. Those focused fundamentals bode well.
What it means for UNC: That the Tar Heels have an awful lot of work to do. Yes, they picked up their intensity and rallied late, but consistency -- whether it’s temperament, shooting, rebounding -- will be key as this young team continues to try to put the pieces together. Hairston led the team with 15 points off the bench, but forwards James Michael McAdoo, Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson combined for only seven rebounds, total. It was a vastly different outcome from just one night before, when UNC pounded Mississippi State by 46 points.
What’s next: Butler will face Illinois in the championship game at Lahaina Civic Center at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday night. UNC plays Chaminade at 7:30 p.m.