Not only did North Carolina's juggernaut dispatch Notre Dame to capture the Maui Invitational championship, the Tar Heels made it look easy.
Utilizing the immense talents of superstar Tyler Hansbrough and dynamite point guard Ty Lawson, UNC broke open a close game midway through the first half and maintained a working margin during the second frame for a 102-87 victory.
Hansbrough finally appeared to be fully healthy after sitting out several games due to a stress reaction in his shin. Matched against star big man Luke Harangody (who, in fairness, was hobbled by flu-like symptoms), the reigning national player of the year notched 34 points on a blistering 13-19 shooting. Not only did he characteristically power his way inside, Hansbrough took his slower opponent to the perimeter and lofted in several jump shots.
Lawson, who was named tournament MVP, blew by the Irish defense for 22 points, 11 assists and six rebounds — easily his finest performance of the season thus far. Big man Deon Thompson continued to answer the nagging question whether he'd remain the confident player he had been during Hansbrough's absence, scoring 19 points and adding 13 boards.
Simply put, the only real criticism of the team in Maui would be that they failed to muster the same defensive intensity for a full 40 minutes. Notre Dame guard Kyle McAlarney lit up the Heels' defense for 39 points, including 10 three-pointers. And that's what it took to keep the score respectable.
Beyond the results and stats, what have we learned from Maui?
First, teams will run with UNC at their own peril. When you score 87 points and still lose by 15, that's a pretty good sign you can't handle the opponent's firepower. These Tar Heels defend with much more vigor than last year's inconsistent bunch, and as a result teams are attempting more contested jump shots and getting fewer free runs at the basket.
Moreover, Hansbrough now has a legitimate impact running mate in the post. Thompson was cited by TV analyst Jay Bilas as one of the country's most improved players, and it's difficult to argue the point. The KO blows provided by Hansbrough now are a 1-2 combination with Thompson, relieving pressure on both Hansbrough and the UNC guards.
On that note, top shooter Wayne Ellington has been called upon far less for perimeter offense. His passing and ball-handling in turn have taken pressure off Lawson, who is freer now to incorporate his own scoring and aggressive playmaking, rather than always having to bring the ball upcourt and initiate halfcourt offense.
UNC gets something of a breather on Sunday — an inevitable letup game against UNC-Asheville — and then will receive its sternest test of the season so far against Michigan State in Detroit next Wednesday.
Check out Wednesday night's box score here.