By Adam Lucas
LAHAINA—Joel Berry knows exactly how Carolina ends up running extra sprints in a typical practice.
“When something is a point of emphasis and we don’t do it in a practice, Coach Williams is going to put us on the line and make us run,” Berry said after his MVP performance in the Maui Invitational title game victory over Wisconsin. “That always helps us remember we need to be conscious of the things he tells us are important to do.”
Tuesday, Williams told his squad they needed to match Oklahoma State’s intensity. The Tar Heels responded with one of the best overall efforts of the Williams era.
On Wednesday, the head coach told his team Wisconsin was especially dangerous on the offensive glass. He implored them to box out on every defensive rebound and finish every defensive possession. Two players, Berry and Isaiah Hicks, independently cited a scouting report stat that obviously made an impact: the Badgers had retrieved approximately 40 percent of their missed shots so far this year.
The result of Williams’ pregame lecture: Wisconsin did not get an offensive rebound until 12 minutes remained in the game and Carolina had built a 44-29 lead.
“The key was to box out,” said Tony Bradley. “I’ve always heard Coach Williams say, ‘Do what you’re told.’ So I try to do that to the best of my ability. Today the overall difference was we rebounded more than they did and were able to keep them from getting second chances like they normally do. That was the difference in the game.”
The Tar Heel big men again had terrific outings. Kennedy Meeks had 15 points and a career-high 16 rebounds; his three offensive rebounds were nearly as many as the Badgers corralled as a team (four). Isaiah Hicks added 14 points and five boards, Bradley contributed six points and three more rebounds. With about seven minutes gone in the game, it looked like Berry was going to stand and watch a Nigel Hayes errant three-pointer come down near the baseline. In swooped Hicks, who grabbed the ball before it could turn into a Wisconsin second chance.
But a complete defensive rebounding lockdown like the one Carolina utilized on Wednesday night can’t be attributed to just three players. Williams likes to talk about players who “bid” on every rebound, meaning they make an effort to grab every possible board. He got a textbook example on film with about five minutes remaining in the game, as Meeks, Hicks and Justin Jackson all tried to grab the rebound off a Bronson Koenig missed three-pointer. Their effort didn't result in a rebound, but was enough to erase any chance of a Wisconsin recovery, and the ball bounced to Kenny Williams.
How good was Carolina in the title game? You could make a highlight reel solely off plays that had no real tally on the scoreboard. In the span of three minutes in the second half, Meeks dove to knock away an entry pass, Brandon Robinson made a diving steal, Robinson kept alive an offensive rebound that bounced to Meeks (who turned it into a three-point play) and Bradley had a perfect box-out on a missed Badger free throw.
The best moment, though, might have come when the quintet of Hicks, Jackson, Bradley, Nate Britt and Seventh Woods combined to force a shot clock violation midway through the second half. The possession featured great work by Hicks in the post against Nigel Hayes, thwarting what Hayes seemed to think would be an easy post move. It also included Bradley working hard on the perimeter and ignoring the temptation to leave his feet and challenge a jump shot.
“Everyone was sliding their feet and helping on that possession,” Bradley said. “When you get a shot clock violation, that means you did something right.”
The Tar Heels did virtually everything right in these three games in Maui. This group, more than any in recent memory, seems completely committed to doing exactly what their head coach tells them. Only two seconds on the shot clock? No problem, the Tar Heels will just perfectly execute a favorite late-clock set, with Berry throwing the inbounds pass to Hicks for a hoop with a whole second to spare.
Bradley and Hicks sat on a bench outside the Lahaina Civic Center on Wednesday evening, still in uniform. They’ve got an early Thanksgiving morning team snorkeling trip on their itinerary, followed by the long ride home and the rest of a season that suddenly seems very promising.
While everyone else seems intent on discussing what’s missing from last year’s team, the returning core seems mainly interested in rectifying the one piece left undone from 2016. It’s not just talk. The Tar Heels are genuinely chapped about the end of last season. Seven opponents this season have already paid for it.
Even on Wednesday, Williams was quick to point out that no national championships are won on the day before Thanksgiving. There’s going to be a lot of giddy talk about his team in the next few days; what probably makes him the happiest is that Meeks responded, “Have a couple great days of practice,” when he was asked how the Tar Heels would prepare for Indiana and Kentucky.
It’s a long, long time until March. But before the calendar even turns to December, the Tar Heels have taken what made them so successful last March and applied it to this year’s team. The results have been electrifying.
“We look at it this way,” Hicks said. “Last year, we did what Coach Williams said to do, and we played on the last Monday night of the season.”
Hicks looked at Bradley and shrugged. Pretty simple. Do what the man says on any given night. Play harder than the other team. Both players were wearing championship shirts that read “North Carolina Tar Heels No Ka ‘Oi.”
Translated: North Carolina is the best. There wasn’t much doubt about that in Maui.