The University of North Carolina men’s basketball team spent part of December being crushed by Kentucky. January brought humiliation to Miami and Wake Forest. February included being embarrassed on his home turf by Duke and Pittsburgh and demanding overtime to beat a dismal Syracuse.
Then came March. The Tar Heels moved to Duke and spoiled Mike Krzyzewski’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5. Then, in overtime on Saturday in Fort Worth, they upset Baylor, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Region and the defending national champion, to advance to the knockout stages of the NCAA Tournament.
Each of those signature wins is a scratch that can redeem any badly spawned season. But both? As Roy Williams, who retired as North Carolina coach last year but was in the stands Saturday, might say, “Daggum.”
The eighth-seeded Tar Heels will meet either St. Mary’s or UCLA on Friday in Philadelphia.
They – and any other team remaining in this year’s men’s tournament – could, however, struggle to create a bigger job of suspense than their 93-86 defeat of Baylor, the first No. 1 seed to lose this year.
Yes, Baylor won the tipoff, and with Kendall Brown’s dunk on a fast break, built a 4-0 lead in 68 seconds. Then UNC grabbed it and didn’t even allow the game to tie until 15.8 seconds remained and Baylor had improbably erased a Tar Heels performance that had looked more likely to end up in the record books only in overtime.
In the first half – after which the Tar Heels trailed by 13 – UNC made half their shots from the field, while Baylor sank 40% and struggled mightily from behind the arc. They were nearly equal in total rebounds, with UNC having the smaller of the edges. But Baylor’s turnovers fueled Carolina’s rise and accounted for 15 of the Tar Heels’ 42 points before intermission.
So did RJ Davis, a sophomore from White Plains, NY, who scored 30 points to lead UNC at the end of the day.
Dive Deeper into NCAA Tournaments
The chaos of Saturday’s game was, in many ways, a fitting mark in North Carolina’s first topsy-turvy campaign under Hubert Davis, who took over from Williams.
The Tar Heels began to rise after the 9-point loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16 and have lost only once since, to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Krzyzewski marveled at them this month, once his own team, then ranked fourth in the country, was beaten by players like Armando Bacot, a 6-foot-10 junior who collects rebounds with the zeal of an Internal Revenue Service agent, and Brady Manek, who transferred from Oklahoma and entered Saturday’s game leading North Carolina with 3 points.
“We knew the potential this team had going into this season, and we just wanted to knock it down,” RJ Davis said Friday. “We knew after the loss to Pitt that that wasn’t the way we wanted to play. So from that point on I think we just turned it around and started competing. And everyone has adhered to its role and that’s kind of what we adhered to.
Helped by a flagrant foul, Baylor set out to buy the majesty of being a No. 1 seed. However, there’s not much a team can do on an afternoon when they trail by 25 points.
Waco-based Baylor has at least avoided the overlapping indignities of a long journey home from a miserable loss and, thanks to a victory over Norfolk State on Thursday, the ignominy of being the first incumbent champion in the history of the tournament.
Very few things went the way the Bears hoped.
Baylor failed to manage a field goal for almost four minutes in the second half. UNC took that interlude and scored 13, creating a 24 lead.
Much of that came from Manek, whose 9 points in the first half dwindled by the end of the second, when he had 17. It’s virtually certain he would have finished with more than 26 points, but he was sent off with just over 10 minutes to play after a flagrant foul.
His dismissal proved the catalyst for the sort of assault on Baylor that, less than two hours earlier, would have seemed like a surefire route for them to Philadelphia.
One shot after another, one opportunity after another exploited, the Bears looked like the team most anticipated to strut into Dickies Arena and advance.
Finally, with less than 16 seconds left, they tied the game at 80, where the score would stand until extra time.
Dontrez Styles, a freshman, hit a first 3-pointer to put UNC back in control. Bacot makes a free throw. UNC wouldn’t have such a lead until 78 ticks remained, and the Tar Heels were up 6 after a flurry of free throws and layups from both teams.
Then, however, time fell again and the score didn’t change much, with Baylor, who won a share of the Big 12 Conference regular season title, squandering chances that could have brought them closer to recovery. of an afternoon and a season.
Instead, North Carolina, a team to forget perhaps not too long ago, would be the program to play on in March.