North Carolina led Harvard by 16 points twice in the second half during the Tar Heels' eventual 67-65 victory in the NCAA tournament on Thursday night. That 16-point lead, though, disappeared, and UNC had to come back to win in the final minute.
Undoubtedly, UNC's failure to hold its lead and close out the game was the primary reason why coach Roy Williams “screamed” at his players afterward. That's how Kennedy Meeks, the sophomore forward, put it, anyway.
“He screamed at us,” Meeks said. “Because he was a little disappointed. He says he's the luckiest coach in the world. Just because we got away with a close one.”
Indeed the Tar Heels did. The margin was a lot closer than it looked like it would be with about 15 minutes to play. When Marcus Paige made a layup with 15 minutes, 20 seconds remaining, UNC led 52-36.
Over the next 14 minutes or so, Harvard outscored UNC 31-13.
So what happened? That was a popular question inside the Tar Heels' locker room.
Paige tried to answer like this:
“Well,” he said, “they had gotten in a rhythm offensively to start the second half. So even though, you know, we're trying to get our defense going again, they were already in a groove, they were in a rhythm, they were getting the ball to (Wesley) Saunders, they made some shots and they killed us on the backboards, it feels like – I haven't seen the boxscore ...”
There was another thing, too: the turnovers.
“Those were the things that we were talking about going into the game,” Paige said. “We wanted to get points off their turnovers. They only had one turnover at halftime, they were 10-0 points off turnovers. So they really did outplay us in a lot of different categories.”
During that 14-minute stretch when UNC went from leading by 16 to trailing by two, the Tar Heels committed eight turnovers. And when they weren't committing turnovers, they weren't making all that many shots from the field, either.
UNC shot 55.1 percent from the field overall, but it made four of its 11 shots from the field during those 14 minutes when the game changed. So UNC turned the ball over at an alarming rate, missed a bunch of shots and Harvard capitalized.
And then there was that four-point play, too.
Siyani Chambers, the Harvard guard, made a 3-pointer with 75 seconds remaining and Paige fouled him. There was contact, Paige said, and it wasn't a bad call. In that moment, the Tar Heels had been so concerned with keeping the ball out of the hands of Wesley Saunders, who led Harvard with 26 points.
“The entire possession, yeah. It's exactly what we wanted,” Paige said. “Chambers made 37 3s on the year, he took 108. He's a pretty decent 3-point shooter but off the dribble is not really his thing. I got a hand up. I guess I crowded him too much or the ref thought there was too much contact.
“That's what we wanted.”
Chambers made that shot but Harvard never scored again. The Tar Heels tied the game on their next possession with a Justin Jackson floater, and then Jackson scored again on a dunk. Harvard missed its final two shots, both 3-pointers, and UNC escaped, happier to explain a collapse that ended in victory rather than defeat.