MEMPHIS — With 6:49 remaining in the first half Friday, Butler was on pace to score 73 points. By Butler standards, that wasn’t bad. It had averaged 76.2 per game.
For the Bulldogs, this part was beyond bad: North Carolina was on pace to score 116. Butler’s opponents had averaged 68.2. After barely 13 minutes, this Sweet 16 game had become the thing that Butler games rarely become — a mismatch. (The final score, 92-80, flatters the loser, and even at that it was the Bulldogs’ most lopsided loss of the season.)
Butler became Butler by wrong-footing more gifted opponents with rigid adherence to what’s known as The Butler Way. Once in a while, though, the savviest of teams runs into one that’s just too good. North Carolina was too good.
We knew that from the score after those first 13 minutes and 11 seconds: Carolina led 38-24. The only chance Butler had was to slow the Tar Heels, but Carolina made 10 of its first 12 shots and there went Ye Olde Gameplan.
To Butler’s credit, Carolina never soared completely out of sight. Its biggest lead was 20 points. But the Bulldogs never got closer than 10, either, and even when it was 10 it seemed like 20. To say the Heels toyed with their opponent would be erroneous — Carolina played hard, which it usually does — but the manpower differential was such that the Heels could get whatever they wanted whenever they needed it.
Justin Jackson, who hadn’t been shooting well, scored 24 points. Joel Berry II, who’d tweaked an ankle against Texas Southern in Round 1 and wasn’t himself against Arkansas in Round 2, had 26 and looked just fine. Sophomore sub Luke Maye got 16, and when you can’t handle Luke Maye you have no chance of halting Carolina.
What appeared a nice matchup — the regal Heels against the famously pesky Bulldogs — became a dud. Butler just wasn’t big enough or fast enough to handle Carolina. Not many teams are. The regional final will bring either UCLA or Kentucky, which could be another matter entirely.