MEMPHIS — With the nation's eyes on the next opponent, the North Carolina men's basketball team took care of Butler, 92-80, in Friday's Sweet 16 game at FedExForum to earn a berth in the Elite Eight.
The No. 1 seed Tar Heels (30-7) and No. 4 seed Bulldogs (25-9) traded buckets for the first four minutes — UNC forcing the ball inside and Butler methodically finding space in the North Carolina defense.
But Joel Berry, fighting off an ankle injury and a poor shooting stretch, hit his first 3-point attempt of the night with 15:24 left to give UNC a four-point lead. And after a Butler three cut it to one, an Isaiah Hicks dunk sparked a 12-0 Tar Heel run.
North Carolina kept its foot on the gas, aided by three 3-pointers from sophomore forward Luke Maye — who scored a career-high 14 points in the first half alone. The Tar Heels hit 18 of their 34 shots (52.9 percent) in the opening period, including six of their first seven 3-pointers, and faced minimal resistance from Butler's zone defense.
The second half slowed to a crawl for both teams, as the Bulldogs clamped down on the 3-point line and UNC earned its way to the free-throw line. North Carolina's lead hovered around 20 points until the final minutes of the second half, when Butler narrowed the deficit to 10 points. But the Tar Heels survived the late surge and cruised to their second straight Elite Eight.
Who stood out?
Luke Maye picked the perfect time to have a career night from the floor.
The sophomore forward scored a career-high 16 points, including 14 in the first half, to guide a struggling UNC frontcourt. Two minutes after Isaiah Hicks picked up his second foul midway through the openign period, Maye hit two 3-pointers in 65 seconds to give his team a 16-point lead.
But the Tar Heels' initial lead was sparked by Joel Berry, who shook off his recent shooting slump to make his first three shots — including two 3-pointers, matching his total from UNC's win over Arkansas. The junior point guard finished with a game-high 26 points, his highest total since scoring 28 against Duke in the regular-season finale.
When was it decided?
After a tense few opening minutes and a chaotic possession that nearly resulted in a turnover, Theo Pinson drove the ball from the midcourt line to the lane before bowling into a Butler defender.
The call was a charge, and the UNC sideline was furious. The Tar Heels held a one-point lead with 15:59 left in the first half, and neither team had a stranglehold on the lead. The call gave the Bulldog fans a jolt, and momentum was on their side.
But it didn't last long.
Just over a minute later, Isaiah Hicks evaded a traveling call and converted a two-handed flush to go up by three. Two minutes later, Joel Berry hit a three. Then Luke Maye hit two more. Just like that, North Carolina held a 16-point lead that reached 20 before the halftime break.
And unlike in their second-round scare in Greenville, the Tar Heels' victory was never in doubt.
Why does it matter?
Friday's win sends UNC to its second straight Elite Eight and its seventh in 11 seasons. The Tar Heels also overcome the bugaboo of Butler, which beat UNC the last two times these teams faced off: by eight points in the Bahamas in 2014 and by 11 points in Maui in 2012.
The victory shows that North Carolina is capable of beating the Virginia-like style that has plagued it in recent years — just in time to face a fast-paced foe in the Elite Eight.
Where do they play next?
The Tar Heels will take the court in Memphis again on Sunday, when they'll face either Kentucky or UCLA in one of the most anticipated games of the season.
The Wildcats took down UNC in Las Vegas in arguably the most exciting game of the college basketball season. But the Bruins boast one of the flashiest offenses in the country, making a matchup with either team an absolute treat for fans nationwide.
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