Despite putting up one of its worst shooting performances of the season, North Carolina is moving on to the Sweet 16.
The Tar Heels, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, shot just 38.1 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from three, but used a late run to surge past upset-minded Arkansas, 72-65. The Heels led by as many as 17 points late in the first half, but Arkansas, the No. 8 seed, clawed all the way back, eventually seizing the lead midway through the second half.
That lead grew as large as five, 65-60, with 3:31 left in regulation, but the Tar Heels finished the game on a 12-0 run to avoid what would have been one of the biggest upsets of the tournament thus far. In a game where UNC’s leading scorers, Justin Jackson (15 points) and Joel Berry (10 points), shot a combined 7-of-27 from the field, the Heels got a great effort from senior big man Kennedy Meeks.
It was Meeks’ tip-in of an erratic Berry miss with 49 seconds to go that was the backbreaker for the Razorbacks. With UNC’s lead at 66-65 and the shot clock winding down, Berry drove to the basket and barrelled into Adrio Bailey while attempting a jump stop.
Sensing the contact, Berry chucked the ball up toward the basket, but no whistle — for a possible charge, block or traveling violation — was blown. The errant shot careened off the backboard and Meeks alertly tipped the ball in just before the shot clock expired to give himself a team-high 16 points and his team a three-point lead.
That was the second controversial call that went against Arkansas in the game’s final minutes. After two Isaiah Hicks free throws gave UNC a 66-65 lead with 1:44 to play, a disjointed Arkansas possession yielded a desperation 3-point try by Daryl Macon late in the shot clock. On first glance, the shot seemed to be an air ball that landed out of bounds, but slow-motion replays appeared to show Meeks getting a piece of the ball. If Meeks did indeed block the shot, Arkansas should have retained possession with a second or two left on the shot clock. Instead, after a review, the footage was deemed inconclusive and possession went back to UNC.
Even after those two tough breaks, Arkansas still had a chance to tie the game. After Meeks’ putback put UNC up by three, Razorbacks big man Moses Kingsley was fouled down low, but bricked two free throws. And the next time Arkansas had the ball, still trailing by three, Anton Beard launched a deep 3-pointer with 15 seconds left that drew nothing but iron. From there Hicks corralled the rebound and finished the game out on the free throw line.
North Carolina, which moves on to face No. 4 seed Butler on Thursday in Memphis, had to win this one ugly. UNC, which finished as national runner-up last year, entered the tournament as one of the favorites to win it all. The Heels proved Sunday that they can win ugly if they have to, but a much better offensive showing is necessary if they want to make it back to the Final Four and beyond.
More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Protesters fly Confederate flag next to NCAA tournament arena in Greenville
• John Beilein comes equipped with super soaker for Michigan’s postgame celebration
• Michigan keeps memorable March run alive, advances to Sweet 16
– – – – – – –