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’s South Region.
“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 three 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 North Carolina 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 for much of the game.
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.
Anderson said the Razorbacks wouldn’t change what they do against the go-go-go Tar Heels. His team rallied from 30-13 down to take its first lead midway through the second half behind a “40 Minutes of Hell” familiar edge from the Nolan Richardson era.
In the end, though, Arkansas fell to 0-9 against No. 1 seeds in the NCAAs and couldn’t reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996.
“They’re a great team,” guard Manuale Watkins said. “And their backs were against the wall. They made the plays to win the game. They’re a 1-seed. They showed it.”
How did experience help? After Barford’s layup, the Tar Heels scored on six of their final seven possessions while the Razorbacks came up empty on their last seven possessions.