“I really don't know.”
If we’re honest, the same answer applies for everyone watching the loss.
Butler’s tactical approach offset and overwhelmed North Carolina’s youthful athleticism during the first 30 minutes, prompting social media networks and brick-and-mortar living rooms to simultaneously experience deja vu of a similar event 10 months ago in Tallahassee.
However, the final 10 minutes, in which UNC used a 40-17 run to claw back within two 3-pointers with 62 ticks of the clock remaining, reestablished a level of hope that this loss may have resulted in a stinging, yet beneficial lesson for an inexperienced roster.
Williams provided another comment during his postgame press conference that highlights the most important aspect of Tuesday’s contest.
“I like their toughness and their intelligence more than their talent, and I'm not trying to put down their talent,” Williams said, referring to Butler. “But I love their toughness and their intelligence.”
One example is in both teams’ efforts to set effective screens on the perimeter. While the Tar Heels were running into Butler’s screens, the Bulldogs were running through UNC’s screens.
“We set halfway screens,” Williams said. “It started to be a collision and we turned sideways. We set a screen, and they'd come and hit us hard. We didn't hit them very hard.”
Junior wing Reggie Bullock agreed.
“I felt like Butler did a great job at setting screens and getting their shooters open,” Bullock said. “I'm setting legal screens, some probably weren't good screens, but at the same time they were setting hard screens, and I just felt like us as a team, we see other teams setting screens like that…
“I just felt like we need to set screens like that to get our shooters open and our big men open.”
That last sentence leads into another conversation that was crucial in this loss and will play a significant role as this season progresses.
Butler guards Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham combined to shoot 9-of-15 from the 3-point line, prompting Stevens to tell reporters that if those two are open, “it's got a good chance of going in.”
Despite ramping up its defensive pressure with halfcourt traps and knocking down five 3-pointers in the late run, North Carolina missed six of its eight 3-point attempts in the final 2:30.
As Williams said following Friday’s win at Long Beach State, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got good looks if you don’t make them. The Tar Heels have to become tough enough to knock down the difficult shots, and all of them are difficult in crunch time.
Credit North Carolina with making necessary adjustments over the final 10 minutes. Bullock and guard P.J. Hairston finally took advantage of their size advantage and began driving to the basket. Williams’s decision to go small with Hairston and J.P. Tokoto at the four spot to set up his halfcourt trap fueled Butler’s 11 second-half turnovers.
“I think the key to the run we made was us being aggressive on both ends of the floor,” Hairston said. “We were doing the little things, scrambling and turning the ball over.”
There’s no such thing as a moral victory for a program the caliber of North Carolina. The most valuable lessons, however, often emerge from losses. Williams has his hands full, but also has eight games to mold his team before the ACC season arrives.
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