The University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team spent part of December being crushed by Kentucky. January brought humiliations at Miami and Wake Forest. February included being embarrassed on its home court by Duke and Pittsburgh and requiring overtime to beat a woeful Syracuse.
Then came March. The Tar Heels went over to Duke and spoiled Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5. Then, in overtime on Saturday in Fort Worth, they upset Baylor, the No. 1 seed in the East region and the reigning national champion, to advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
Each signature victory is of the stripe that can redeem any misbegotten season. But both? As Roy Williams, who retired as North Carolina’s coach last year but was in the stands on Saturday, might say: “Daggum.”
The eighth-seeded Tar Heels, who blew a 25-point lead with less than 11 minutes remaining in regulation before recovering, will meet either St. Mary’s or UCLA on Friday in Philadelphia.
They – and any other team remaining in this year’s men’s tournament – might be hard-pressed, though, to author a greater work of suspense than their 93-86 downing of Baylor, the first No. 1 seed to lose this year.
Yes, Baylor won the tipoff, and with Kendall Brown’s dunk off a fast break, built a 4-0 lead in all of 68 seconds. Then UNC seized it and did not even allow the game to be tied until there were 15.8 seconds remaining and Baylor had improbably erased a performance by the Tar Heels that had seemed more likely to wind up in the record books than in overtime.
Freshman Dontrez Styles opened overtime with a 3-pointer and UNC managed – this time – to hold on.
“It was just something,” said Armando Bacot, one of North Carolina’s star players. “It was stressful, for sure.”
In the first half – after which the Tar Heels led by 13 – Baylor struggled mightily behind the arc and its turnovers fueled Carolina’s rise and accounted for 15 of the Tar Heels’ 42 points before the intermission.
So did RJ Davis, a sophomore from White Plains, NY, who scored 30 points to lead UNC by the end of the day.
The chaos of Saturday’s game was, in many respects, a fitting mark in North Carolina’s topsy-turvy debut campaign under Hubert Davis, who succeeded Williams.
The Tar Heels started to rise after the 9-point loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16 and have lost only once since, to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Krzyzewski marveled over them this month, once his own team, then ranked fourth in the country, was done in by players like Bacot, a 6-foot-10 junior who collects rebounds with the zeal of an Internal Revenue Service agent, and Brady Manek , who transferred from Oklahoma and came into Saturday’s game leading North Carolina in 3-pointers.
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“We knew the potential of this team coming into this season, and we just wanted to turn it around,” RJ Davis said on Friday. “We knew after the loss to Pitt, that wasn’t the way we wanted to play. So from that point on, I think we just turned it around and started to compete. And everyone bought into their roles and that’s kind of what we’ve been buying into. ”
Helped along by a flagrant foul, Baylor got around to buying into the majesty of being a No. 1 seed. There is only so much a team can do, though, on an afternoon when it trailed by 25.
Waco-based Baylor, at least, avoided the overlapping indignities of a long trip home after a miserable loss, and, thanks to a victory over Norfolk State on Thursday, the ignominy of being the earliest exiting departing champion in tournament history.
Very little else went quite as the Bears hoped.
Baylor could not manage a basket for a stretch of close to four minutes in the second half. UNC took that interlude and scored 13, building a lead of 24.
Much of that came from Manek, whose 9 points in the first half came to feel small by the end of the second, when he had 17. It is virtually certain that he would have finished with more than 26 points, but he was ejected with just more than 10 minutes to play after a flagrant foul.
His dismissal proved the catalyst for the kind of Baylor onslaught that, less than two hours earlier, would have seemed like a surefire route for them to Philadelphia.
One shot after another, one opportunity after another exploited, the Bears looked like the team most expected to swagger through Dickies Arena and advance.
“We knew that as a team we weren’t going to give up, and we decided to apply pressure a lot more and be assertive out there,” said Adam Flagler, a Baylor guard. “So once we got into those diamonds and traps, we were able to get some stops and get some easy looks, and therefore got the run going.”
Baylor’s late success in pressing North Carolina, Hubert Davis said, had two consequences: It forced the Tar Heels to speed up and led to turnovers.
“They did not want to go home,” he said of Baylor.
Eventually, with less than 16 seconds left, the Bears tied the game at 80, where the score would stay until overtime.
The 3-pointer by Styles to begin overtime let UNC regain control. Bacot made a free throw. Baylor effectively hung around until 78 ticks remained, with the Tar Heels up by 6 after a flurry of free throws and layups from both teams.
Then, though, time ebbed further, and the score did not change much, with Baylor, which earned a share of the Big 12 Conference’s regular-season title, squandering chances that could have drawn it closer to salvaging an afternoon and a season.
“At the end of the day, it’s hard making shots in that second game, and both of us don’t have deep benches and usually the numbers will probably back that up,” said Scott Drew, Baylor’s coach. “But they had two guys that came out of the gate shooting it well.”
Drew said he thought his team had displayed “the heart of a champion” by staging the comeback it did.
But North Carolina, a team maybe to forget not long ago, became the program to play on in March.
Michigan found enough magic in time to beat Tennessee.
Set aside all of the messes of this Michigan season – the ugly clash at Wisconsin and the suspensions that followed, the stinging losses, the quick exit from the Big Ten Conference tournament – because the Wolverines are suddenly winning when it counts.
Michigan, a No. 11 seed in the South region, mounted a late surge in Indianapolis on Saturday to topple third-seeded Tennessee, 76-68.
Tennessee, which had ridden a well-timed winning streak through the Southeastern Conference tournament, never commanded the game in the way it wished. Its lead never exceeded 6 points, and it missed 16 of 18 3-point tries. Michigan, which will next play in San Antonio, was hardly setting records behind the arc, where it went 6 for 16, but those points proved crucial. So did free throws: Eight of Michigan’s final 10 points came from the line.
Hunter Dickinson, Michigan’s starting center, had 27 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Wolverines. Eli Brooks added another 23 points for Michigan in a game with a dozen lead changes.
Michigan showed vulnerabilities, though, turning over the ball 15 times, more than twice as often as the Volunteers, and fueling 20 Tennessee points.
Kansas, another No. 1, got through a scare from Creighton.
Baylor might have lost, but the Big 12 Conference is just glad it avoided two debacles: Kansas, a league stalwart and another of the tournament’s No. 1 seeds, fended off Creighton, 79-72.
But the Jayhawks, whose roster boasts seven seniors and who led by as many as 9 points on Saturday, sometimes seemed to wheeze to Chicago, where they will play next. Trey Alexander, a Creighton freshman, hit a long 3-pointer over Remy Martin to leave his team trailing by just 3. KeyShawn Feazell scored on a layup off a dribble penetration pass from Alex O’Connell to trim the deficit a little more, to 73-72.
An errant pass by Alexander gave Ochai Agbaji, the Big 12 player of the year who would finish on Saturday with 15 points and eight rebounds, a chance to steal and score and rebuild the Kansas lead to 3.
Timely defense kept Creighton, which was playing without its own defensive anchor after an injury on Thursday, from scoring again, while Kansas used four free throws to push its tally to 79.
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