North Carolina has won five NCAA championships, four in the post-UCLA era. If we go by Titles That Coulda/Shoulda Been won, the Tar Heels are undisputed leaders. (Kansas runs a distant second.) Since seeding began in 1979, North Carolina has failed 19 times when it was a No. 1 or a No. 2. That doesn’t sit well with Heel fans. Imagine how this would have felt.
Moot point, though. The Heels overhauled Arkansas to win 72-65. The Razorbacks led 65-60 with 2:57 remaining and didn’t score another point. North Carolina’s defense had much to do with it. The Hogs’ inability to run any sort of halfcourt set surely had more.
Here’s how the final five Arkansas possessions went: Terrible shot, forced shot and foul on the rebound, an outright heave at the shot-clock horn, two missed free throws and a turnover. To its credit, North Carolina scored on six of its final seven possessions. It won, which is all a team needs to do to keep playing in this tournament.
Arkansas didn’t appear the sort of team that could beat North Carolina — to have a chance against the Heels, you can’t play at their speed — but this is March and you never know. Already this Big Dance had been something of an SEC revival, what with Florida and Kentucky safely in the Sweet 16 and member teams starting 6-1. League commissioner Greg Sankey was on hand to see what might happen when two of his charges met two ACC giants.
“Satisfied would be the wrong word,” Sankey said, speaking before tipoff. (A year ago, the commish had expressed dissatisfaction with the SEC’s basketball product.) “I’m encouraged by the progress we’ve shown.”
The ACC mood was rather different. The teams set to play at Bon Secours Wellness Arena were the only ones still standing from a league that dispatched nine to the tournament. Saturday night had gone poorly: Florida State and Virginia lost and looked terrible doing it. (Virginia managed but 39 points, an all-time NCAA low for an ACC representative, against Florida of Sankey’s domain.) Sunday started no better: Louisville was upset by Michigan.
The league that sent a record six to the Sweet 16 a year ago was down to North Carolina and Duke, which isn’t exactly nothing. There’s a real chance those two could meet — for the fourth time this season and the millionth time ever — for the national championship. But first they had to win their way out of the arena known locally as The Well.
Speaking of which: These games were set for Greensboro until the NCAA pulled all championship events from the state that had enacted House Bill 2, the bathroom-rights bill. (Showing that South Carolina isn’t immune to political kerfuffles, some folks flew a Confederate flag Sunday from the back of a truck atop a parking garage near The Well.) “If Carolina and Duke lose tonight,” one ACC voice said, “HB2 will get repealed tomorrow.”
The Heels’ rolling start served to quell Tobacco Road nerves. Before the third TV timeout could be whistled, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson had burned two of his own. North Carolina led 12-4, then 25-11, then 30-13. Done and dusted, right? Not quite.
The Heels got sloppy. Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks fouled Arkansas sub Darryl Macon twice on 3-point tries — he made the first — and those seven points touched off a comeback. (Macon would score 12 points in 12 minutes.) Theo Pinson lost the ball against the press, resulting in an Adrio Bailey layup. The 17-point lead was down to four. It was 38-33 at the half, a score far more to Anderson’s liking than to North Carolina’s.
After intermission, the Heels rebuilt their lead to nine. Then Arkansas took off on another run and seized a 50-46 lead. This marked the second time in three games that Roy Williams saw his Heels outscored 13-2 without calling timeout. (Hey, at least he’s consistent.) North Carolina was clearly nettled — Arkansas can have that effect — and for long moments, it felt like the South’s No. 1 seed was about to fall.
Joel Berry made two free throws with 2:56 left to pull the Heels within three. Isaiah Hicks dunked off Jackson’s pass to cut it to one. Two Hicks foul shots at 1:44 gave North Carolina its first lead in 14 minutes. Then Berry drove and slammed into Bailey — it appeared a charge — and was so flustered he simply flipped the ball toward the backboard. Meeks guided the rebound into the hoop to make it 68-65 while the Hogs stood around griping.
They might, it must be said, have had a case. Arkansas didn’t get in the bonus all game. With 26 seconds remaining, North Carolina had been whistled for three second-half fouls. (One was an illegal screen on Jackson.) Of the Berry no-call, Anderson said: “I though he ran over one of our guys. If he didn’t, he traveled.”
But let’s stipulate this: A team that cannot score a point over the final 3:30 of an NCAA Tournament game doesn’t deserve to keep playing in the NCAA Tournament. For the Hogs, the well ran dry.
For the Heels, the road leads to Memphis and the Sweet 16. “I don’t mind saying that I feel a little lucky,” Williams said. “But every now and then I knock in a long putt, too.”