In 6 months’ time, you’ll see the score of this game, and if you’re not being careful, you’ll think, “Huh. 15 point win over Wisconsin. 71-56. That was a nice ballgame.”
It was much, much more than that.
The final margin, once all of the substitutions had been made and the game had long been decided, does not begin to describe what happened Wednesday night in Maui. With 2:28 left in the game, Joel Berry hit a circus shot while being fouled, buried the free throw, and put the Tar Heels up 69-44. The lead may as well have been 70, as thoroughly as the Badgers were dominated.
Let’s hit pause here for a moment and think about what that means. Wisconsin is ranked 16th, which is probably too low. According to Ken Pomeroy, they rate as the #9 team in the country, and are the highest rated team from the Big Ten. You think the Tar Heels are experienced? Wisconsin starts 4 seniors, led by Big 10 preseason player of the year Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. And of course, those seniors are well versed in running a precision offense designed to make every empty possession you have very, very costly. They are the anti-Carolina; the team whose style is so different that you figured the outcome of the game would depend upon who would be able to force the tempo of the game to their preferred style.
Wrong. Wisconsin forced a Wisconsin-style game, limiting transition scoring (there were no fast break points in the first half) and keeping the score down. The Tar Heels simply adapted and dismantled Wisconsin from the opening tip, dominating defensively and beating them in a way that simply doesn’t happen to Wisconsin teams very often. Hayes and Koenig? They combined for more turnovers (3) than points (2) in the first half, and finished the game with a combined 10 points. The Tar Heels never trailed, holding Wisconsin without a point until the 12:42 mark of the first half, when D’Mitrik Trice hit a 3 point shot and gave the Badgers a false hope that things might be turning around. The Tar Heels proved that, at least at this point in the season, they’re good enough to grind you down any way you want to play.
Berry, who plays the game like someone who doesn’t just want to beat you, but wants to burn your house to the ground and steal your girlfriend, was named tournament MVP after putting up 22 points on 9-12 shooting, hitting 2 of 3 3-point baskets. Perhaps the most promising thing about Berry, though, is that his teammates seem to respond to his leadership by taking on his personality. What may be most noteworthy over the last two Tar Heel games is not just the ease with which they dispatched good basketball teams, but the consistency with which Tar Heels hit the floor, chase loose balls, challenge every pass, and generally play like a team that doesn’t think good is good enough.
Against Wisconsin, that mentality clearly rubbed off on senior center Kennedy Meeks. Meeks posted a career-high 16 rebounds (12 in the first half alone), along with 15 points and 2 assists. He also was a persistent nuisance on defense, recording 2 steals and 2 blocks, to say nothing of a fair number of floor burns. Even his only turnover was the result of an aggressive play in which he overthrew a teammate who had gotten behind the defense downcourt. It was the kind of night Meeks has been slowly building towards for 3 years; the kind that answers critics who question his toughness. Isaiah Hicks had a nice night of his own, fitting right in with 14 points and 5 rebounds, showing some nice range in the process. All of it was more than enough to make up for a tough shooting night for Justin Jackson, who scored 12 on 4-13 shooting (1-6 3pt), and for Kenny Williams’ being shut out on the evening. As a team, the Tar Heels were furious on the boards, shutting Wisconsin out on the offensive glass in the first half and allowing only 4 offensive rebounds for the game.
That’s another of the many encouraging things about the last three days in Maui. In an era in which the focus on recruiting is so extraordinary that who signed who gets as much attention as who beat who, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that basketball remains a team sport. Great teams tend to find ways to function and thrive when one player or another isn’t at his best, and at this stage of the season, the Tar Heels look to have developed a mature identity as a team despite the loss of Theo Pinson.
An otherwise inconsequential play is a good illustration of this point. With 9:41 left and the Tar Heels holding 19 point lead, Seventh Woods, a freshman still adjusting to the college game, made a clumsy turnover and had the ball taken away by Koenig, who raced downcourt for a layup. Unfortunately for Koenig, he had been outraced by Woods, who responded as if he took the matter personally and blocked the shot.
It is the kind of play that championship teams make. There will be tougher challenges ahead, and no doubt disappointments and frustrations to come. But if Tar Heel fans entered this season wondering whether it was realistic to hope that UNC was a real contender after the loss of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, they can sleep soundly tonight knowing that for this UNC team, championships much more important than the one they’re bringing home from Maui are well worth dreaming about.