It began with North Carolina coach Roy Williams gritting his teeth in the first couple of minutes, slamming his palms into a wayward ball that had landed in his arms on the sideline, yelling for his players to “Wake up – wake up!”
It ended with the Tar Heels – long awake, long energized – celebrating an 85-66 victory against Providence on Saturday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament at PNC Arena. UNC, the top seed in the East Region, is headed back to the Sweet 16.
They’ll arrive in Philadelphia amid a seven-game winning streak that has been defined by tough, relentless defense and balanced offense. And so it was again against Providence on Saturday night, when the Tar Heels turned a tie game into something of a rout.
The Tar Heels and Friars, the No. 9 seed in the East, were tied at 41 with 15 1/2 minutes remaining after Kris Dunn, the two-time Big East Player of the Year, scored on an authoritative dunk. From there, though, UNC seized control with a 9-0 run that ended with Brice Johnson’s three-point play.
Johnson on that play took position in the post, his right hand up, calling for a pass. Sophomore forward Justin Jackson obliged.
Johnson spun right, quickly, past Rodney Bullock and finished at the rim with a two-handed dunk. Helpless to defend the play, Bullock committed a foul and Johnson made the free throw.
Johnson's three-point play gave the Tar Heels a 50-41 lead with less than 13 minutes to play. The Friars cut their deficit to five with less than 11 minutes left, but then UNC put the game away with a 20-6 run during the next five minutes.
UNC during that stretch took advantage of Providence's foul trouble. Dunn and Ben Bentil, the Friars' leading scorer, were both in foul trouble throughout the second half and Bentil eventually fouled out.
“We were fortunate enough to get those guys in foul trouble,” Johnson said when asked what changed in the second half. “We were attacking them, getting to the line. Me and Isaiah were just wreaking havoc down there for a while."
By the end of that surge, the Tar Heels 70-51 with a little less than six minutes remaining, and their 27th trip to the Sweet 16 grew more inevitable by the minute.
UNC advanced to play against fifth-seeded Indiana, which defeated Kentucky in the second round on Saturday, in an East regional semifinal on Friday in Philadelphia. It will be the first time the Tar Heels and Hoosiers have played in the NCAA tournament since 1984.
The teams played in the East regional semifinals that year, too, and Indiana, a No. 4 seed, prevailed in a 72-68 victory against No. 1 UNC. That game is remembered for being Michael Jordan’s final game at UNC.
The Tar Heels’ victory on Saturday night, meanwhile, will be remembered as another in which they turned it on when they needed to. The first few minutes were sluggish, with Williams urging his players to “wake up,” and with the Tar Heels struggling to score.
That didn’t last, though. UNC eventually found its offensive rhythm and led 34-30 at halftime. It was at its best after halftime, when it shot 60 percent during the final 20 minutes.
Five UNC players finished in double figures including Johnson, the senior forward who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomores Joel Berry and Justin Jackson scored 15 points apiece and Marcus Paige, the senior guard playing for the final time in N.C. State’s home arena, finished with 12 points.
He made one of the game’s biggest shots, at least at the time. His 3-pointer with about 10 minutes remaining gave UNC a 55-45 lead, which was the Tar Heels’ largest at that point.
The Tar Heels’ lead grew as large as 22. Providence, which shot 40 percent, never mustered a rally after UNC took control midway through the second half.
Dunn led Providence with 29 points and sophomore forward Ben Bentil finished with 19 points before he fouled out. Their teammates, though, combined to score 18 points.
It ended with Williams, who bemoaned his team’s lack of intensity early, inserting UNC’s walk-ons in the final minute. By then the Tar Heels had long secured victory, and they were headed back to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season.
“We're not done,” Paige said. “We feel like we still have a lot of work to do. We feel like we can still play a lot better. We didn't come to this point in the season to get to the Sweet 16. The Sweet 16 is a stepping point to get to where we want to be, which is (at the Final Four) in Houston.”
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 1 Oregon-No. 8 St. Joseph’s winner, Thursday
No. 1 UNC vs. No. 5 Indiana, Friday