GREENVILLE, S.C. – Three minutes, 28 seconds.
That’s 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 Carolina was trying to foul, incidentally – and the clock read zeroes, the direction of the air changed. Top-seeded North Carolina 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 that we were awfully lucky,” said North Carolina 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 (referring to the Tar Heels’ closing run). And I don’t mind saying, too, we were awfully lucky. But I thought we were very unluckily there in a stretch. But to go 12-0 […]”
North Carolina (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 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. Joel Berry connected on one of two free throws with just shy of four seconds remaining, 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 Barford three as the shot clock expired drew a roar and put Arkansas ahead by that same 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’s 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 in 26 minutes of action off the bench. Macon developed cramps late in the game and needed to leave the floor, but Arkansas 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.” Razorback guard Anton Beard added 10.
Meeks led the Tar Heels in scoring and rebounding, tallying a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double. Jackson notched 15, with Joel Berry scoring 10. Berry showed few ill effects of the foot injury that plagued him during Friday’s first-round action.
North Carolina will advance to play Butler in the Sweet 16. That game will take place in Memphis, Tennessee on Friday. The game time has yet to be announced.
#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.