It wasn’t supposed to end this way for the North Carolina Tar Heels.
At least not how they imagined it.
After earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years, the Tar Heels expected to beat No. 5 seed Auburn and compete for a national championship. The Tar Heels were 8-1 in Sweet 16 games under Roy Williams coming into Friday’s game.
But Auburn, one of the hottest teams in college basketball, had other plans. The Tigers outplayed the Tar Heels in the second half, at one point taking a 19-point lead. They hit four consecutive 3-pointers, three by Danjel Purifoy, and never looked back, winning 97-80 and ending the Tar Heels’ dreams of a seventh national championship in program history.
With the game out of reach, North Carolina senior Kenny Williams was pulled from the game. He was in tears and buried his face in a towel. It was his final game.
Auburn, winner of 11 consecutive games, is headed to the NCAA’s Elite 8 and will play the winner of No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 3 seed Houston in the finals of the Midwest Regional. It is the Tigers’ first trip to the Elite 8 since 1986.
The Tar Heels’ season ends at 29-7. Roy Williams is now 8-2 in the Sweet 16 as head coach at North Carolina, and 13-6 overall at both Kansas and UNC. North Carolina is 21-8 in the Sweet 16.
The Tar Heels were one of the hottest teams in college basketball entering the NCAA tournament. They had won 17 of their last 19 games coming into Friday’s game.
But Auburn was the better team, beating the Tar Heels at their own game, getting after loose rebounds and scoring on fast-break opportunities. And hitting 3-pointers. The Tigers were 17-of-37 from the arc.
“I didn’t help them a heck of a lot today,” Roy Williams said. “I didn’t get them as prepared as Bruce (Pearl) got his team prepared.”
North Carolina was the first No. 1 seed to be knocked out of the NCAA tournament and the only No. 1 seed to not advance to the Elite 8.
Freshman Coby White and graduate senior Cam Johnson finished the game with 15 points each. Senior forward Luke Maye, in his final game, had 13 points and 7 rebounds. The trio combined to shoot 14 of 40 from the floor.
Freshman wing Nassir Little had four points. Both Little and Johnson came down with fevers on Thursday and struggled, Roy Williams said.
The Tar Heels had a five-point lead with 3:27 left in the first half. But they became sloppy and the Tigers took advantage. Auburn ended the half on a 6-0 run to take a two-point lead at halftime.
The Tigers continued their run at the start of the second half and took a 12-point lead after the first five minutes.
After that, the Tar Heels never got closer than seven points. Auburn was just too good.
The Tigers, who dominated Kansas in the second round last week, caught fire from 3 in the second half. They broke a record for most 3’s against the Tar Heels under Williams.
As North Carolina watched Auburn pull away from the game, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson stood in disbelief on the bench. They hugged their teammates as they came off the court.
It was over.