North Carolina stared the end of its season in the face on Sunday — the end of so many dreams and hopes, and the end of a long pursuit of redemption that has driven this team for nearly a year now — and the Tar Heels didn’t blink.
They trailed Arkansas by five points with three minutes to play and then, in those tense moments of prolonged futility and dying dreams, UNC’s situation appeared bleak, indeed. The Tar Heels had already lost a 17-point lead. They had lost their ability to run their offense.
They had lost their composure, in moments, and now they were three minutes away from losing their season, and the goal of avenging one of the most heartbreaking defeats in NCAA Tournament history. Just when it appeared at its most lost, though, UNC found a way. Somehow.
The Tar Heels scored the final 12 points on Sunday, and Justin Jackson’s authoritative dunk in the final seconds provided a signature moment in UNC’s 72-65 victory. And with that, UNC is onto the Sweet 16 for the 34th time in school history. Top-seeded UNC advanced to the South Regional semifinals, where it will play against Butler, the No. 4 seed, on Friday. There will be time to digest that match-up, and analyze it. In the meantime, it might take a while to figure out how the Tar Heels ever found their way on Sunday against Arkansas.
UNC shot only 38 percent. The Tar Heels committed 17 turnovers — 10 of them in the second half, when UNC at times appeared unnerved and out of sorts. And Joel Berry and Justin Jackson, UNC’s two leading scorers, labored through arguably their worst combined game of the season.
They missed 20 of their 27 attempts from the field, and combined for 25 points. Just when the game began to feel out of reach, though, given UNC’s second-half ineptitude, the Tar Heels discovered their defensive will and managed a way to score, finally.
Six of their final 12 points came at the free-throw line. An Isaiah Hicks dunk and Kennedy Meeks putback accounted for four more, and then there was Jackson’s breakaway dunk in the closing seconds. After he landed he screamed, and seconds later the Tar Heels celebrated a dramatic comeback.
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