North Carolina stared the end of its season in the face on Sunday – the end of so many dreams and hopes, and the end of a long pursuit of redemption that has driven this team for nearly a year now – and the Tar Heels didn’t blink.
They trailed Arkansas by five points with 3½ minutes to play and then, in those tense moments of prolonged futility and dying dreams, UNC’s situation appeared bleak, indeed. The Tar Heels had already lost a 17-point lead. They had lost their ability to run their offense.
They had lost their composure, in moments, and now they were 3½ minutes away from losing their season, and the goal of avenging one of the most heartbreaking defeats in NCAA tournament history. Just when it appeared at its most lost, though, UNC found a way. Somehow.
The Tar Heels scored the final 12 points on Sunday, and Justin Jackson’s authoritative dunk in the final seconds provided a signature moment in UNC’s 72-65 victory. And with that, UNC is onto a regional semifinal for the 35th time in school history.
Top-seeded UNC advanced to the South Regional semifinals, where it will play against Butler, the No. 4 seed, on Friday. There will be time to digest that match-up, and analyze it. In the meantime, it might take a while to figure out how the Tar Heels ever found their way on Sunday against Arkansas.
“I don’t mind saying I feel a little lucky,” UNC coach Roy Williams said when it ended.
Arkansas’ 65-60 lead with 3½ minutes remaining seemed larger than the five-point margin indicated. It seemed larger because the Razorbacks took that lead moments after a UNC turnover – one of the 10 the Tar Heels committed in the second half.
UNC then seemed doomed. It had been a second half of turnovers and missed shots and, on the other end, Arkansas at times scored in improbable ways – with the shot clock running down or, at times, with a defender in position to disrupt.
With a little less than three minutes remaining, though, Joel Berry, the junior point guard who played through ankle pain, made a pair of free throws to cut UNC’s deficit to two points. The Tar Heels forced a defensive stop and then Isaiah Hicks maneuvered past the Razorbacks’ defense for a dunk.
Now it was a one-point game, Arkansas leading 65-64, with two minutes, 16 seconds remaining.
“I just told my teammates to believe, and believe that we were going to win the game,” said Berry, whom Williams described afterward as a “little rascal.” “That’s why I got it tattooed on the inside of my arm, that’s what you gotta do is believe.”
And so the Tar Heels, who reached the national championship game a season ago and lost at the buzzer against Villanova, believed. They also played some of their best defense of the season during the final few minutes.
After another defensive stop, Hicks made two free throws to give UNC the lead again, and after defensive stop Kennedy Meeks tipped in a miss, and after another defensive stop Hicks made two more free throws.
Jackson’s dunk followed UNC’s final defensive stop. And then it was over: UNC’s 12-0 run, and the game.
“The last seven possessions we scored six times,” Williams said. “The last seven possessions they didn’t score. So that’s some toughness there, too. I’ll still say I feel lucky. But you know what? Luck is – what’s that old saying – preparation meets opportunity. And the guys stepped up and made some plays too.”
UNC shot only 38 percent. The Tar Heels committed 17 turnovers – 10 of them in the second half, when UNC at times appeared unnerved and out of sorts. And Berry and Justin Jackson, UNC’s two leading scorers, labored through arguably their worst combined game of the season.
They missed 20 of their 27 attempts from the field, and combined for 25 points. Just when the game began to feel out of reach, though, given UNC’s second-half ineptitude, the Tar Heels discovered their defensive will and managed a way to score, finally.
Six of their final 12 points came at the free-throw line. Hicks’ dunk and Meeks’ putback accounted for four more, and then there was Jackson’s breakaway dunk in the closing seconds. After he landed he screamed, and seconds later the Tar Heels celebrated a dramatic comeback.