No. 4 Heels, No. 16 Badgers battle for Maui title
Fourth-ranked North Carolina blew by its first six opponents in frightening fashion. The Tar Heels could solidify themselves as early NCAA title contenders if they can do it one more time against No. 16 Wisconsin on Wednesday in the championship game of the Maui Invitational in Lahaina, Hawaii.
The Tar Heels (6-0) surpassed the century mark in their first two games of the tournament, beating Chaminade 104-61 and Oklahoma State 107-75. They are averaging nearly 97 points per contest and winning by 29.3 points per game.
The Badgers (4-1) own three victories in a row since falling to No. 22 Creighton on the road. They won all three games by double digits. Wisconsin held its first five opponents to 59.2 points per game, but it won't be easy to slow North Carolina's high-octane offense.
Six players scored in double figures for North Carolina in the Tuesday win over Oklahoma State. The Tar Heels shot 57.8 percent from the field, made 8 of 17 from 3-point range, converted 25 of 29 free-throw opportunities and outrebounded the Cowboys 44-32. Joel Berry II had 24 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Justin Jackson added 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
After the game, Jackson was asked his team's form.
“You know, clicking on all cylinders, that's a scary term because it's only six games of the season,” he said. “So to look down here and see, I guess, six people in double figures, you know, that's pretty crazy against a really good team.”
The Tar Heels also did a nice job defensively. Oklahoma State went into the game averaging 104.5 points per game. Against North Carolina, the Cowboys shot 36.1 percent from the field and made just 6 of 22 from 3-point range.
“They played at an energy level much, much higher than anybody we've played this year, and they made us play with an energy level much higher than we've played at any other time this year,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I think that they got our focus. That's encouraging to me to see how we can do when we really focus and play at that same energy level.”
Wisconsin defeated Tennessee 74-62 in the opening round and beat Georgetown 73-57 in the semifinals Tuesday to reach the championship game. The Badgers amassed a huge 50-21 rebounding advantage against the Hoyas, capitalizing one of their biggest strengths.
“I think it's become the identity of this team, and there are times when it's not pretty,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “In fact, there's times when we will have to win ugly, and that may be one of the areas where we can really make up with other deficiencies or deficiencies in other areas.”
The Badgers eliminated North Carolina in a Sweet 16 game in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels made it clear that they haven't forgotten when asked about the possibility of beating the Badgers to win the Maui Invitational.
“Wisconsin knocked us out two years ago, so, of course, it would be great,” Jackson said. “But right now we're trying to just focus on Wisconsin. We know they're a really good team, so we've got to focus on them, but obviously a title would be great.”