Monday, March 20, 2017

UNC escapes upset-minded Arkansas to return to Sweet 16

Justin Jackson celebrates as North Carolina reverses Arkansas' upset bid with game-ending 12-0 run to send Tar Heels to Sweet 16. (Photo by Tar Heel Photo)

By Brian Wilmer (@sportsmatters)
Special To Daly Dose Of Hoops

GREENVILLE, SC – Three minutes, 28 seconds.

That was how long it took for a gasp to become a celebratory exhale.

North Carolina found itself trailing Arkansas, 65-60, after a Jaylen Barford layup. A nervous energy enveloped the partisans in Carolina blue.

By the time Justin Jackson’s dunk powered through the goal – a play on which Roy Williams said UNC was trying to foul, incidentally – and the clock read zeroes, the direction of the air changed. The top-seeded Tar Heels closed the game on a 12-0 run, defeating eighth-seeded Arkansas, 72-65, in second-round NCAA Tournament action at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

“We feel very fortunate. I even told Mike (Arkansas head coach Anderson) that we were awfully lucky,” said head coach Roy Williams. “But two things enter my mind. One, what I just talked about, is how tough and how focused we were to go 12-0. And I don't mind saying, too, we were awfully lucky. But I thought we were very unlucky there in a stretch. But to go 12-0 […]”

UNC (29-7) raced out to an early advantage, making quick work of 10 first-half turnovers by the Razorbacks and converting them to 17 points. The Tar Heels lead stretched as far as 30-13 after a Joel Berry II triple splashed the strings at the 5:31 mark. From there, Arkansas ramped up the defensive intensity, sparking a 13-3 run and knifing the Carolina margin to just five. Berry connected on one of two free throws just shy of four seconds remaining in the opening stanza, sending the Heels to the horn up 38-33.

The Arkansas resurgence continued into the second half, as the Razorbacks forced the Tar Heels into makes on just three of their first nine shots. Arkansas (26-10) took its first lead of the game at the 13:04 mark of the second half, as a Dustin Thomas jumper provided a 47-46 Razorback margin. A Dusty Hannahs trey followed on the ensuing Arkansas possession, pushing the lead to four.

Neither side could separate further than a two-possession game over the next ten minutes as the back-and-forth battle raged. The tension continued to build, as a Jaylen Barford three as the shot clock expired drew a roar and put Arkansas ahead by that same four-point margin. A Jackson bucket pulled Carolina within a single digit, and two consecutive Arkansas scores, the second of which being the Barford shot that moved the lead to five, seemed to indicate a possible upset in the making.

That was when North Carolina’s defense went to work.

The Arkansas offense that had brought it back into the game throughout the half suddenly vanished, as a sense of urgency washed over the Tar Heels. “The last seven possessions, we scored six times,” said Williams. “The last seven possessions, they didn't score.”

North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks echoed his coach’s sentiments – if not in so many words.

“Oh yeah, I was thinking about that -- five minutes ‘til when they came back. This can’t be our last game,” said Hicks. “Me and Kennedy [Meeks] were like, ‘No, this can’t be it. We have to do something.’”

Arkansas guard Daryl Macon led all scorers, pouring in 19 points in 26 minutes of action off the bench. Macon developed cramps late in the game and needed to leave the floor, but head coach Mike Anderson refused to suggest that Macon’s absence cost his team the game.

“He played hard. That's why,” said Anderson. “He played hard. He left his heart out on the floor. I think that's what causes cramping. We saw a lot of our guys, they left it out on the floor.” Anton Beard added 10 for the Razorbacks in the losing effort.

Meeks led the Tar Heels in scoring and rebounding, tallying a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double while also recording his 1,000th career board. Jackson notched 15, with Berry scoring 10, showing few ill effects of the ankle injury that plagued him during Friday’s first-round action against Texas Southern.

North Carolina will advance to the South Regional semifinals, where they will play Butler in the Sweet 16. That game will take place in Memphis on Friday, with tipoff slated for 7:09 p.m.

#1 NORTH CAROLINA 72, #8 ARKANSAS 65

ARKANSAS (26-10): Thomas 1-1 0-0 2, Kingsley 4-12 1-4 9, Barford 4-14 0-0 9, Hannahs 3-7 0-0 8, Watkins 2-4 0-0 4, Thompson 0-0 0-0 0, Bailey 2-4 0-0 4, Macon 6-8 4-4 Cook 0-0 0-0 0, Beard 4-10 0-0 10. Totals 26-60 5-8 65.

NORTH CAROLINA (28-7): Meeks 7-13 2-2 16, Hicks 2-7 5-6 9, Jackson 5-14 2-2 15, Pinson 1-4 0-0 2, Berry II 2-13 4-7 10, Britt 2-4 2-2 6, Bradley 2-2 3-4 7, Robinson 0-0 0-0 0, Woods 0-1 0-0 0, Maye 3-5 1-2 7. Totals 24-63 19-25 72.

Halftime — North Carolina 38-33. 3-Point Goals—Arkansas 8-21 (Kingsley 0-1, Barford 1-6, Hannahs 2-4, Macon 3-5, Beard 2-5), North Carolina 5-17 (Jacson 3-6, Berry II 2-8, Britt 0-2, Maye 0-1). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — North Carolina 45 (Meeks 11), Arkansas 32 (Watkins 8). Assists — North Carolina 15 (Jackson 5), Arkansas 9 (Macon/Beard 3). Total Fouls — Arkansas 20, North Carolina 10. Technical — None. A — NA. Points in the Paint —North Carolina 32, Arkansas 28. Points off Turnovers —Arkansas 24, North Carolina 23. Second-Chance Points — North Carolina 16, Arkansas 4. Fast Break Points —Arkansas 11, North Carolina 8. Bench Points — Arkansas 33, North Carolina 20.

LISTEN: North Carolina postgame audio

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