GREENVILLE, S.C. — The first-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels held on in the final minutes with veteran leadership and poise for a hard-fought 72-65 win over eighth-seeded Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena Sunday night.
UNC senior Kennedy Meeks led the way with 16 points, 11 rebounds and an all-important putback to extend the Heels’ lead to three with just 43 seconds remaining.
Down by five after leading by as many as 17, UNC outscored Arkansas 12-0 in the final 2:56 to secure a victory and a Sweet 16 appearance.
“I just told my teammates to believe, and believe that we were going to win the game,” junior Joel Berry II said.
“That’s why I got it tattooed on the inside of my arm, that’s what you gotta do is believe. Coach said the same thing. That’s what we did the last four minutes.”
An exclamation dunk from ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson (15 points, eight rebounds, five assists, five steals) with seconds remaining drew cheers and a sigh of relief from Carolina fans in attendance, knowing their team had escaped without playing a good game.
“We feel very fortunate,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said.
“I even told Mike that we were awfully lucky; I think we were. I thought the moon and the stars weren’t aligned properly, the shot clock was winding down and they make a three over a good defense. But inside the four-minute TV timeout, I think, it was 3:47 to play, I told our guys we hadn’t won one like this all year long.”
The Heels jumped out to a 17-point lead with 5:30 remaining in the first half, and it appeared Carolina would run away against a less-talented Arkansas squad.
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson lit into his team during a timeout, and a switch seemed to have been flipped.
The Razorbacks buckled down defensively and heated up offensively, scoring 20 points in the final 5:08 to head to the half down just 38-33.
In the second half, Carolina was a mess offensively, and was unable to do the things it has done well all season, leading to the Razorbacks eventually taking a one-point lead with 13:04 remaining.
Arkansas extended that lead to five points with 3:28 left, when the Heels put their foot down and did what it had to do to get the win.
“Our crowd got into it, but it’s because we changed our play, and they saw us digging in on the defensive end,” Berry said.
“They were just behind us. They’ve done a great job of supporting us this year. Even though we’re in South Carolina, you know, they all came out.”
Arkansas guard Daryl Macon led all scorers with 19 points.
Berry, who played with an ankle injury suffered in the Heels’ opening NCAA Tournament game, scored 10 points.
“The first thing I thought of when I woke up this morning was wondering how he felt.,” Williams said. “
“You can look at his stat sheet. It doesn’t look great when you’re 2-for-13, but he’s a tough little nut out there today and helped us in every way possible.
Jackson passed Shammond Williams (1996-97) for most made threes in a season in UNC history with 98.