The recipe for disaster was all there for the top-seeded Tar Heels during Sunday’s 72-65 win over No. 8 seed Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament Second Round.
UNC watched a 17-point first-half lead slowly dwindle away thanks to the high-pressure Razorback defense, while stars Justin Jackson and Joel Berry went colder than the North Pole in the winter time.
Offensive rebounds became scarce, and turnovers became abundant.
Just a day after defending national champion Villanova was sent packing, Arkansas looked poised to hand the Tar Heels a similar fate when it took a five-point lead with 3:28 to play.
Then, somehow, some way, UNC found a way to pull it together–reeling off a 12-0 run to close out a win it had no business getting.
“We were in the most difficult fight we’ve had all year long,” head coach Roy Williams said after the game. “I kept telling them inside the four-minute TV timeout, ‘We hadn’t won a game like that this year. Let’s do it now.'”
A monster slam and a pair of free throws by senior forward Isaiah Hicks helped the Tar Heels regain the lead, but it was a critical put-back by Kennedy Meeks–who led the team with 16 points and 11 rebounds–that put the team ahead by three points, and may have sealed the deal.
Following the bucket by Meeks, it appeared as if the Tar Heels were literally brought back from the dead with the enormous shift in energy and body language.
UNC junior wing Theo Pinson told reporters that none of the players had to say anything to each other. They all knew it couldn’t end this way. Not with all the big goals that still lay ahead.
“I think it teaches you to play every single possession,” Williams said. “I told them, ‘Don’t look at the score. Just play every possession. Let’s get the best shot we can get, let’s get a stop on the defensive end and then let’s do it again.”
Arkansas, meanwhile, lost its composure on offense down the stretch–resorting to long threes and a lot of dribbling in circles once UNC began to make its comeback.
Prior to that point, the Razorbacks shut down the Tar Heels by using their athleticism to force turnovers and hold Jackson and Berry–who was battling an ankle injury–to a combined 25 points on 7-for-27 shooting.
Junior guard Daryl Macon led the charge for head coach Mike Anderson’s team, scoring 19 points and dishing out three assists.
The Razorbacks also received a superb defensive effort from forward Moses Kingsley, but it simply wasn’t meant to be for Cinderella on this night.
Instead, the Tar Heels’ will continue their quest to avenge last year’s loss in the NCAA Title game–moving on to the Sweet 16 in Memphis.
“I even told Mike [Anderson] we were awfully lucky,” Williams said. “I think we were. I thought the moon and stars weren’t aligned properly.”
The Tar Heels will face No. 4 seed Butler in the South Regional Semifinal, which will be played at the FedEx Forum–home of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.
- Kennedy Meeks recorded his 1,000th career rebound late in the second half.
- It’s the 35th Sweet 16 appearance all-time for UNC.
- The teams combined for 35 turnovers in all. (18 for Arkansas, 17 for UNC)
- UNC won the rebounding battle 40-30, but recorded just four offensive boards in the second half–two of which came during the 12-0 run that won the game.