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North Carolina ousts Baylor despite squandering a 25-point second-half lead

·4 min read
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Having squandered a 25-point lead in the final 10 minutes of regulation and lost two of their best players in the process, North Carolina appeared to be on the verge of crashing out of the NCAA tournament via a stunning meltdown.

Somehow, some way, the eighth-seeded Tar Heels steadied themselves in overtime to eliminate the South region’s No. 1 seed and reassert themselves as genuine threats to make the Final Four.

Freshman guard R.J. Davis had the biggest role in helping North Carolina overcome a record-tying Baylor rally, suspect officiating and the Tar Heels' own inability to break a full-court press. Davis scored 30 points and delivered the most important basket of the game, a 3-point play late in overtime that extended North Carolina's lead to six and helped the Tar Heels hold on for an emotion-laden 93-86 victory.

“I didn’t want to go home,” Davis told reporters afterward.

"None of us wanted to go home," center Armando Bacot added.

With reigning national champion Baylor and second-seeded Kentucky both eliminated from the East region, North Carolina’s path to a potential Final Four is suddenly wide open. A Tar Heels team that was on the NCAA tournament bubble a month ago will face fourth-seeded UCLA in next week's Sweet 16.

If the North Carolina team that dominated Saturday's first 30 minutes shows up to Philadelphia, the rest of the East region should be worried. The perimeter shooting of Brady Manek and Davis and a smothering defensive performance helped the Tar Heels build a double-digit lead after less than eight minutes, increase it to 13 by halftime and seemingly blow the game open in the first 10 minutes of the second half.

North Carolina led 67-42 when Baylor's Matthew Mayer missed a 3-pointer. Then, in an instant, a key decision from the referees changed the course of the game.

Manek was controversially assessed a flagrant 2 foul and ejected from the game after elbowing Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan in the face while trying to get in position to grab a defensive rebound. At the time of his ejection, the sweet-shooting, bearded forward had a game-high 26 points, the fifth time in North Carolina's past six games that Manek had eclipsed 20 points.

As Manek walked off the floor with a towel over his head, Baylor sensed an opportunity. Ratcheting up their full-court defensive pressure, the Bears forced three straight turnovers and reeled off 11 straight points in less than two minutes.

A rattled North Carolina team only wobbled further when guard Caleb Love fouled out on a charging call with seven minutes to go and Bacot picked up his fourth foul less than two minutes later. This is a North Carolina team that only played five guys in the second half of their win at Duke a couple weeks ago. Depth is not the Tar Heels' strong suit.

North Carolina's Brady Manek reacts in the second half of a game against Baylor during the second round of the 2022 NCAA men's tournament. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
North Carolina's Brady Manek reacts in the second half of a game against Baylor during the second round of the 2022 NCAA men's tournament. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

That was apparent in the final minutes of regulation as North Carolina continued to hoist bad shots, miss free throws and cough up the basketball. Baylor closed the second half with a 38-13 onslaught capped by a 3-point play from guard James Akinjo that tied the game with 15 seconds left in regulation.

Baylor's comeback would have matched the largest in NCAA tournament history had the Bears managed to win in overtime. BYU faced a 25-point deficit with 6:12 left in the first half against Iona in the 2012 First Four before rallying to win the game.

While Baylor's loss ensures that college basketball will not have a repeat champion, the Bears' should be proud of their title defense. They departed four of their six top players from last season and lost two more starters to midseason injuries yet still won a share of the Big 12 title and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Just when a Baylor overtime victory seemed inevitable on Saturday, North Carolina summoned some badly needed resolve in the huddle after regulation. Davis said the Tar Heels pledged to "stay together, make plays and not get too rattled.”

Dontrez Styles getting North Carolina off to a positive start with a 3-pointer certainly helped, as did the tired legs of the Baylor players who had engineered the second-half comeback. As Baylor coach Scott Drew said afterward, “When you spend all that energy, sometimes you run out of gas.”

When it was over, when North Carolina had held on to win, there was no one more relieved than Manek. The graduate transfer from Oklahoma has played a pivotal role in rallying North Carolina from the bubble over the past few weeks, but he feared it all might go to waste with him only able to watch from the bowels of the arena.

“When we got back into the locker room," Davis said, "we all gave him a big hug.”