LAHAINA, Hawaii — Before his team’s game against Butler here on Tuesday night in the Maui Invitational, Roy Williams went over his talking points, as he usually does, and he specifically instructed the Tar Heels to play hard and play with intelligence. Williams expected Butler to do both.
What he didn’t expect was his team to do neither for long stretches during its 82-71 defeat – one that left Williams so agitated he briefly snapped at a tournament public relations staffer who attempted to fix his microphone during his postgame press conference. Williams apologized for that, but not for the anger and disappointment he directed toward his team, and his own coaching.
“On game nights,” Williams said, “you’ve got to freaking step up and be a man on game night.”
The Tar Heels, in Williams’ estimation, weren’t men on Tuesday at the Lahaina Civic Center. At least not for the first 30 minutes or so, when Butler (2-1) held UNC to its fewest first-half points in 16 years and then built a 29-point lead with about 10 minutes to play.
If there’s one positive that the No. 9 Heels (4-1) could take from a disappointing defeat, it’s that they didn’t quit at that point, trailing by 29 with so little time left. Then again, that was of little solace for Williams.
“I’ve never had a team quit,” he said. “One possible exception could have been possibly Florida State [last season] … I knew we would make a run, and saying [we would] when we went small acts like you’re giving coaching credit. And the coach should not get any credit tonight, I guarantee you.”
Williams used a smaller, quicker lineup during the final 10 minutes, and the Heels during that stretch nearly manufactured a comeback that would have been remembered alongside the greatest in school history. After trailing 60-31 with 11:56 to play, UNC cut Butler’s lead to 77-71 with 1:06 remaining.
Heels freshman point guard Marcus Paige had scored six consecutive points – one on a layup and a foul shot, and the other on a 3-pointer – but UNC didn’t get any closer. As spirited and inspired as its rally was, UNC’s poor play during the first 28 minutes doomed the Heels to defeat.
Through most of the first three-quarters of the game, UNC produced a cornucopia of mistakes and miscues that placed the Heels on the same path they traveled during a 33-point loss at Florida State last season. That loss was the most lopsided of Williams’ tenure at UNC.
Against Butler, in the first half, especially, the Heels failed to rebound and failed to find any kind of rhythm on offense. They had one offensive rebound at the half – a stat that particularly disgusted Williams – and their 18 points were their fewest since a January 1996 victory at Wake Forest.
UNC eventually began to rebound better and found some offense during the second half, when it shot 50 percent. But the Tar Heels never could solve Butler’s offense, and they never seemed to be able to fight through, or around, the innumerable screens the Bulldogs set to get their shooters open.
“I felt like Butler did a great job of setting screens, getting their shooters open – setting legal screens,” UNC junior guard Reggie Bullock said. “Some probably wasn’t [legal] screens, but at the same time they were setting hard screens.”
Bullock, who finished with 13 points, sounded envious while describing Butler’s offense.
“I just feel like we’ve got to set screens like that to get our shooters open, get our big men open,” he said.
Williams said he spent time talking about those screens, and how Butler would use them. He said UNC works on screens – both setting them on offense and fighting through them on defense – every day in practice.
Most of all, Williams spent time telling his players how tough Butler would be, how hard the Bulldogs would play.
“And we didn’t match that toughness,” Williams said. “And that’s my job as a coach to get us at that level.”
P.J. Hairston came off the bench to lead the Heels with 15 points, while Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham had 17 apiece to lead Butler. Clarke and Dunham combined to make nine of Butler’s 12 3-pointers. The Bulldogs finished 12-for-25 on those.
Williams entered the season not knowing what to expect from his young, mostly inexperienced team. In its first two games in the Maui Invitational, the Tar Heels, who defeated Mississippi State by 46 on Monday, proved they can be a vastly different team from game to game, half to half and even from one minute to the next.
UNC even nearly came all the way back on Tuesday after a dreadful start.
But Heels’ forward James Michael McAdoo said, “[We] just didn’t show up ready to play.”