LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Rotnei Clarke’s improbable 3-point heave at the buzzer against Marquette on Monday launched Butler into a second-round matchup against the No. 9 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Even more improbable? Clarke and Butler dominating North Carolina for 30 minutes before hanging on for an 82-71 victory Tuesday.
With 11 minutes, 38 seconds left in the second half, the game looked like it would be a blowout. Butler led 60-31 and the Tar Heels couldn’t seem to buy a shot. But after a timeout, North Carolina came out with pressure defense and closed the gap to 62-45 in just more than two minutes, thanks to a handful of Butler turnovers and big 3-point shots by P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock.
“When you’re playing a program like North Carolina, you know they’re coming and their run’s coming next,” Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said. “We didn’t handle it great, but we handled it enough that they never got inside six.”
The Tar Heels kept up the pressure and Butler kept turning the ball over. A Marcus Paige 3-pointer with 1:02 left cut the Bulldogs' lead to six.
But the Bulldogs responded with made free throws and the Tar Heels missed several tough 3s in the last minute to give the Bulldogs the win.
In the end, it was the defensive boards and transition defense that won the game for Butler.
The Bulldogs outrebounded the Tar Heels 36-27 (24-12 in the first half) and limited high-octane North Carolina to just six fast-break points.
“The two things that scare you the most about playing a Carolina team are, No. 1, transition and, No. 2, the defensive glass,” Stevens said. “We did a good job on both of those areas and on short prep. We had a very short time to prepare for them. You have to emphasize just a few things and those were the two things we emphasized.”
“It was a tough night for us,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said after the game. “They were more physical, more assertive, more aggressive. They were physically, mentally into the game so much more, and that’s my job as a coach to get this team prepared.”
Williams also bemoaned the Tar Heels' poor rebounding in the game.
“Last year, we led the nation in rebound margin. They outrebounded us by 12 in the first half. We had one offensive rebound in the whole first half. To me that’s aggressiveness.”
Butler’s sweet shooting from behind the arc also contributed to the win. Butler shot 47 percent from 3-point territory for the game (including going 7-for-9 in the second half). It was a welcome relief for a Butler team that struggled to get its two elite shooters -- Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham -- open in previous games against Xavier and Marquette.
Clarke finished the game with 17 points and was 4-for-6 from beyond the arc. Dunham also scored 17 points and was 5-for-9 from 3.
“If Kellen and Rotnei are open, it has a good chance of going in,” Stevens said.
For Williams, the Tar Heels' loss came with somewhat of a silver lining.
“I like our competitiveness and I like that we didn’t quit. We are probably not as exciting as we were last night and I hope we aren’t as bad as we were when we were down 29 points.”
For the Bulldogs?
They face Illinois in the Maui Invitational championship game. While Illinois was the heavy favorite, Stevens got a wry grin on his face when asked by a local Maui reporter what he thought about the possibility of playing Chaminade in the title game.
“I love giant-killers.”