The Tar Heels won on tradition and toughness. Period.
Looking at the statistics and flow of the Arkansas game in the round of 32, Carolina couldn’t possibly win. Blow a 17-point lead in the first half and agree to a dogfight before a hostile crowd. Joel Berry and Justin Jackson shoot 7 for 27. Team commits 17 turnovers. Trails by five with three minutes left. Few programs in America pull out such a game. Thankfully, UNC is one of them.
To say things weren’t going well for the Heels as the game in Greenville wore on would be an understatement. They stopped getting the ball inside like they had in the first half and they ceased dominating the offensive backboard, where they had 14 rebounds before halftime but only four after. Of course, one of them was Kennedy Meeks’ put back of Berry’s no-call collision on the right wing.
Many of the turnovers were unforced, passes that slipped through hands on the perimeter, a ball bouncing off Theo Pinson’s foot that resulted in a three-pointer for the Razorbacks. So how did they score the last 12 points to win a game that surely looked lost?
First is the decades-old tradition that the Tar Heels never quit. That is the only thing they did consistently during the second half – not quit. Then came the toughness it takes to make the plays when the momentum is going the other way. Jackson shot poorly but made two had-to-have-them baskets down the stretch. Isaiah Hicks stepped to the foul line on the big stage and made three clutch free throws. The defense locked down so tightly that it was Arkansas – a self-proclaimed second-half team – that got tentative in the final minutes of their ballyhooed 40 Minutes of Hell.
Without those characteristics, you don’t score those last 12 points and suddenly turn around a game that was clearly getting away from them. Most teams playing so ugly slump home with an ugly loss. Roy Williams kept imploring his players that they needed to win a close game like this, and they prepared for it in practice.
Keep playing, dig deeper on defense and get back on the glass with the last energy they had left. Hicks executes a slip screen for a dunk, Meeks blocks one shot, offensive rebounds another and tips in a third. These are the plays that teams with tradition and toughness make when defeat is staring them right in the kisser and wind up winning when it looks like they have no chance.