After racing out to a 30-13 lead, No. 1 seed North Carolina basketball got all it could handle from No. 8 seed Arkansas on Sunday night. The Razorbacks, led by Daryl Macon’s 19 points, went on a massive run to end the first half and rode that momentum well into the second half—Arkansas opened up a 65-60 lead with 3:30 remaining in the game. The Tar Heels were on the ropes—Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson couldn’t buy a bucket and the Tar Heels kept turning the ball over.
UNC easily could have folded in this one, but they did just the opposite—the Tar Heels finished the game on a 12-0 run over the final three and a half minutes to win 72-65. Seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks fueled the run, as Meeks’ tip-in put the Heels up three with 45 seconds remaining and Hicks’ four clutch free throws sealed the win. The Tar Heels advanced to their 28th sweet sixteen—the most of any program in the country.
This win was not pretty. Carolina turned the ball over 17 times and shot just 38 percent from the field—the worst shooting percentage in a Tar Heel NCAAT win since a 1967 victory against Princeton. Joel Berry II, nursing an ankle injury, finished a dismal 2-13 from the field and missed a couple free throws down the stretch that could have cost the Tar Heels. However, UNC responded when it meant most—that’s what elite programs do, and it’s what the Heels will need to do if they want to keep playing. After going down by five, Carolina locked down on defense and held Arkansas scoreless for the final 3:30. Going forward, the Tar Heels need to put forth the same effort—in crunch time, UNC will need to make the necessary plays to survive and advance.
The Tar Heels will face No. 4 seed Butler on Friday night. The Bulldogs defeated No. 13 seed Winthrop and No. 12 seed Middle Tennessee State in the opening two rounds. While UNC is the more talented team on paper, the style Butler plays could give the Heels problems. The Bulldogs love to slow the game down and limit possessions—According to Kenpom, Butler ranks 288th in the country in adjusted tempo (the Heels rank 53rd). For those that watch ACC basketball, Butler plays a similar style to UVA—the style that held UNC to 43 points in an ugly road loss in Charlottesville. However, if the Tar Heels push the pace when they can, lock in defensively, and control the boards (UNC ranks 1st in the country in overall rebounding) they will be in a good position to move on to the elite eight.
After Duke’s stunning 88-81 loss to No. 7 seed South Carolina last night, the Tar Heels are the last ACC team remaining in the field. As we’ve already seen, no team is safe–not even No. 1 overall seed and defending national champion Villanova, who was bounced in the second round. However, after watching UNC fight back in a game where its season was on the line, one thing became clear—these 2016-17 North Carolina Tar Heels will not go down easy and are on a mission to finish the fight this season.