North Carolina is off to the NCAA tournament South Regional semifinals in Memphis after its 72-65 victory against Arkansas on Sunday night. Lots of stories, video and photos here:
-The quick and dirty game story, detailing UNC's late rally.
-The story of how UNC survived in the maddening final minutes.
-From Luke DecCock, how Isaiah Hicks, one of UNC's quietest, spoke up – and everybody listened.
Now for some day-after thoughts, notes, quotes …
1. Somehow, UNC found a way.
The Tar Heels shot less than 40 percent from the field. Joel Berry and Justin Jackson went a combined 7-for-27 from the field. UNC trailed by five with three minutes remaining and, to that point, seemed completely out of sync. None of those problems, though, were anything that a game-ending, 12-0 run couldn't fix. All the components were there for a stunning, season-ending defeat. And yet, as Theo Pinson put it afterward, “We're going to Memphis … We're going to Memphis.” Arkansas right now is wondering how it ever lost that game. The Tar Heels won it, meanwhile, by rising in the moment with their season at stake. “It was gut check time for us,” Pinson said. That's one way to put it.
2. But no, really, how did the Tar Heels win this game?
UNC hadn't won an NCAA tournament game in which it shot less than 40 percent since 2007. In fairness, it hasn't often experienced such miserable shooting in the NCAA tournament. Since 2007 it had only happened twice, before Sunday, that UNC shot less than 40 percent in the tournament. UNC shot 30.1 percent against Kansas in the second round in 2013, and the Tar Heels shot 35.8 percent against Kansas in the 2008 national semifinals (what is it about Kansas?). The Tar Heels lost both of those games, and neither were particularly close. Jackson and Berry, meanwhile, labored through one of their worst collective shooting performances of the season, the Tar Heels turned it over 17 times and allowed 24 points off of those (most an opponent had scored all season off of turnovers) ... and yet UNC is advancing.
3. The Tar Heels hadn't won a game like this all year.
One of the popular takeaways in the locker room, repeated by players over and over again, was how they hadn't won a game like this all year, and how doing so on Sunday inspires belief that it can be done again. Roy Williams, in fact, emphasized that point during a timeout with less than four minutes remaining. This is what Williams said he told his team: “We've got to be tough. It's got to be with our brain and our heart, both. We've got to get stops and we've got to get shots.” UNC did all of those things during its game-ending 12-0 run. The Tar Heels stopped Arkansas on six consecutive possessions, and UNC won the game with its execution at the other end, as well.
-One of the biggest plays of the game: Kennedy Meeks' tip-in, off of Joel Berry's miss high off the backboard, with 44 seconds remaining. Said Meeks: “I think Joel showed a great deal of savvy for trying to get the ball to the goal, because he knew me and Isaiah would be on the offensive glass. I just so happened to be in the right position.” Said Berry: “It was a horrible shot on my part, but I just tried my best to get it up on the backboard and just so happened Kennedy was there to make up for it, so I've got to thank him for that.”
-The mood in the locker room after: I’d describe as a mx of joy and relief, and the whole feeling was one of giddy exhaling -- happiness and surprise and fear all rolled into one. Probably what many UNC fans felt when it was over. And yet there was also some empowerment, too, because UNC really hadn’t won like this.
-Justin Jackson has now made more 3-pointers in a single season than any player in school history. He has 98 and counting. That's three more than Shammond Williams, the previous record-holder, made during the 1996-97 season.
-Some of my favorite quotes from last night.
From Nate Britt: “The last three minutes of that game, when I was on the bench, I think that's the most nervous I've ever been in my life when it comes to basketball.”
From Isaiah Hicks: “I was just thinking to myself, this can't be it.”
From Joel Berry: “Sometimes you get a little lucky in the tournament. And it's March Madness, that's what it's all about.”
-Kennedy Meeks, meanwhile, finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds – his 12th double-double of the season, and 24th during his four years at UNC. Meeks also now has 1,000 rebounds, exactly. He's the ninth UNC player to achieve that milestone.
-Ended my main story last night with this little scene in the locker room between Isaiah Hicks and Kenny Williams, but it bears some repeating here, again. The scene: Hicks and Williams, sitting a couple of seats apart in the locker room. Hicks trying to comfort Williams.
“You can breathe now, Kenny,” Hicks said
“No I can't,” Williams said.
“Why?” Hicks asked.
“We've got four more games,” Williams said.
-A quick note about Greenville: It was a fantastic host city. Extremely walkable. Lots to see and do – and eat – downtown, and the people here embraced having the tournament. It was a big deal here, a departure from the vibe the week before in New York City, where no one really knew the ACC tournament was happening. There, college basketball felt overshadowed. Here, it felt like it belonged.