North Carolina, the top seed in the South region, jumped out to a 20-point second half led. While the No. 4 seed Butler Bulldogs would not go down quietly, the Tar Heels would keep the lead no less than 10 for the remainder of the evening, advancing to the Elite Eight with a 92-80 win on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.
It was the bounce-back win the Tar Heels needed — following a near collapse against Arkansas in the second round — to assert themselves as serious contenders once again.
Joel Berry II, who had been hampered by an ankle injury suffered in the first round win against Texas Southern, had a game-high 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting. That’s coming a weekend after 3-of-21 shooting in first and second half wins. Justin Jackson followed with 24 points. Luke Maye had 14 of his 16 points in the first half, an offensive explosion that included a trio of 3-pointers.
“Well, at this stage of the year, if you don’t have good offensive games or good defensive games, you go home,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams told reporters after the game. “But we do need to be clicking a little bit on all cylinders. We’ve got one, two — we only had three guys in double figures today, one of them is 26 and the other 24, so that’s pretty good. But yes, we do need both of them making shots and doing some things for us.”
Williams is right. The Tar Heels do need to be clicking on a little bit on all cylinders. And on Friday night, they did a little more of that than they did in a second-round scare from the Razorbacks.
North Carolina’s offense didn’t have a lapse it did in the second half against Arkansas. When Butler cut the deficit to 10 with more than five minutes remaining, North Carolina countered with a 7-2 run. Part of the offensive efficiency should be attributed to the status of Berry’s ankle, which besides a few moments in the second half, didn’t plague him as much as it did in the previous contest. It also helped that Jackson avoided a 5-for-14 shooting performance and the Tar Heels cut down the turnovers from 17 to 10. They also held a good shooting team — one that needed to knock down shots from the outside if it wanted a chance to extend its season — to under 30 percent from beyond the arc.
The Tar Heels controlled the glass, and dominated the inside, outrebounding the Bulldogs 38-26 and scoring 42 points in the paint. That’s a good sign, as they should be expected to hold the advantage on the inside against either team they face in the Elite Eight.
Regardless of who prevails in the rematch between No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 2 seed Kentucky, the top-seeded Tar Heels are in for an all-out war on Sunday in the Elite Eight. But Friday night was the bounce-back performance that showed the Tar Heels are capable of putting it all together to book another trip to the Final Four.