GREENVILLE, SC – Maybe Isaiah Hicks said it best when asked to describe what was going through North Carolina’s collective minds when the Tar Heels left the bench after an official timeout trailing Arkansas by 5 points with 3:43 left to play.
“I was thinking ‘This can’t be our last game,’” Hicks said. “Me, Kennedy (Meeks) and Nate (Britt), this is not it, we’ve got to do something.”
The senior trio was facing that reality on a night so little went right for the Tar Heels, yet with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, they buckled down and came through. North Carolina 72, Arkansas 65.
“I told my team we’ve got to believe, we’ve got to believe we’re going to win the game,” Joel Berry said.
The Tar Heels won the game, and they did it in a manner that hasn’t exactly been the norm for them this season. They’ve rarely come back from late deficits, though granted they’ve only been in a few of those situations.
But this was different. This was the NCAA Tournament. This was with everything these players had talked about texted about, tweeted about, worked their tails off all summer and this season for, and it was slipping away.
Carolina led 32-17 late in the first half when another disturbing end-of-half stretch let Arkansas right in the game. The Razorbacks closed the half on a 16-6 run over the final 3:15. That gave them needed confidence and it carried until just after that final timeout.
“Turnovers and we gave them confidence,” Theo Pinson said. “When you give a team confidence they make everything they throw up, and they did.”
But the Tar Heels locked down defensively, owned the glass, and made some shots, turning a 65-60 deficit into a 72-65 victory. And once they got they got the first stop, the Heels could see it in the Hogs’ eyes things were different.
The game had changed. UNC had regained control.
“Yeah,” Pinson replied, when asked if he could see it in the Razorbacks’ eyes. “I could tell when I was guarding the ball mostly at the end, he would be looking around instead of being aggressive, (and) that’s how they got back in the game, they weren’t thinking they were just attacking.
“But they would look at their coach when they were dribbling and you could tell if we just take them out of what they want to do they would struggle and just go into late-clock ball screens.”
It started with the stepped up defense, and the tide officially changed when Meeks put back a missed runner by Berry, who struggled for the fourth consecutive game.
The junior point guard got his man on his hip driving into the lane and got up a floater, but he missed. Waiting there in perfect position, however, was Meeks who tipped the ball into the basket giving UNC a 66-65 lead with 1:44 left.
Meeks scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and those were the biggest of his career.
“Joel showed great savvy trying to hit the rim late in the shot clock, and I also to do what coach always says, which is get in front of a defender when a shot goes up and it fell in my hands,” Meeks explained. “We do tip drills all the time in practice, so it was something that I was used to and followed through with it.”
Berry thought he was fouled, but he also knew one of Carolina’s big men would be there. This is who the Tar Heels are, it’s what they do, it’s a weapon in the their arsenal.
“I thought there would be a whistle, and when I threw the ball up it was so loud in there I could tell,” Berry said. “But I just threw it up on the backboard, and we emphasize to our bigs to get to the glass, and Kennedy was right there and he topped it in. It was a bad shot on my part, but he made up for it.”
The Heels put the finishing touches on their 29th victory of the season despite Berry and Jackson combining to make 7 of 27 field goal attempts. Lost in the comeback is that Carolina won a game with both of their perimeter go-to guys having pedestrian performances.
“I think we stopped some of the questions about us being tough, I think that definitely showed how tough we can be,” Meeks said.
And with that, the Tar Heels live to play another day. Berry knows the term used in narrow wins in this often unpredictable tournament.
“We got a little lucky, but at this time of year it’s about surviving and advancing.”