GREENVILLE, S.C. – North Carolina’s players talked all year about their run to last year’s NCAA championship game – that, as painful as the loss was, it prepared them for another Final Four push.
On Sunday, down to a handful of possessions with their season suddenly in peril, the Tar Heels’ experience saved them from a stunningly early exit.
Kennedy Meeks had 16 points and a huge tip-in with 44.2 seconds left, helping top-seeded UNC barely avoid a huge upset by rallying late to beat Arkansas 72-65 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t mind saying I feel a little lucky,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Every now and then, I knock in a long putt, too.”
The team with three returnees who were on the court for Villanova’s title-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer last year had enough composure to shake off everything on a day rapidly going wrong.
A blown 17-point first-half lead.
Arkansas’ aggressive and harassing defense.
Even a 65-60 deficit in the final 3 minutes, which threatened to turn the game into the kind of March Madness moment that had befallen the fellow 1-seed Wildcats only a day earlier.
Instead UNC closed on a 12-0 run to give Williams his 18th trip to the Sweet 16 dating to his time at Kansas.
“We could’ve easily laid down those 3 or 4 minutes and gave in,” junior point guard Joel Berry II said, “but like I said, we’ve got dreams and goals we want to reach. And we just didn’t want to go home.”
Justin Jackson added 15 points for the Tar Heels (29-7), including the win-capping dunk off a turnover with 3.5 seconds left. Senior Isaiah Hicks came up big late, too, with a dunk and four free throws in the final 2 minutes after being a no-show much of the way.
Daryl Macon scored 19 points before battling leg cramps for the eighth-seeded Razorbacks (26-10), who did just about everything right in the second half – except close out the Tar Heels.
“We came to dance and we didn’t come to do the one-step,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “We wanted to bust up some brackets here today.”
The Razorbacks had UNC wobbling with their aggressive, mistake-forcing defense harassing the Tar Heels all over the court. And when Jaylen Barford scored in transition off a turnover, Arkansas led 65-60 with 3:28 left.
But the Tar Heels responded in a huge way.
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