MEMPHIS, Tenn. — North Carolina is a team that proved it can handle adversity by clamping down defensively, scoring the game’s final 12 points and rallying from behind in the final 3½ minutes to beat Arkansas in its second round NCAA tournament game last Sunday.
But if the top-seeded Tar Heels want to keep advancing deeper into the tournament, starting with Friday’s South Region semifinal matchup with No. 4 Butler, they’ll have to do a better job of dealing with success.
Three times in their four postseason games to date, coach Roy Williams’ team has taken its foot off the accelerator after building double-digit leads just before halftime, allowing opponents to climb back into contention.
It’s a trend forward Justin Jackson and his teammates want to end before it becomes a habit or worse, puts an end to UNC’s season earlier than it wants.
“I don’t if there’s necessarily an issue,” Jackson, the ACC’s Player of the Year, said. “I think it’s just us staying focused all the way through. “I think it’s human nature to kind of sit back whenever you see you’re up by 17 points. For us we just have to make sure, no matter what the score is, to keep playing.”
The Tar Heels led Miami by 12 before surrendering the final seven points of the half against Miami in the ACC tournament quarterfinals in Brooklyn two weeks ago, a run they were able to withstand by regaining control early in the second half.
Twenty-four hours later, they saw allowed Duke to outscore them 7-1 over the final minute-and-a-half before the break to narrow a 13-point margin down to 7 and start the comeback that eventually led to a Blue Devils victory.
UNC (29-7) nearly suffered a similar fate when Arkansas took advantage of another late first half lapse to make its final six field goal attempts and narrow what was once a 17-point deficit down to five. The Razorbacks used that momentum to build a five-point lead of their own before the Tar Heels ramped up their defensive intensity and pulled the game out late.
According to coach Roy Williams, there were two common threads that bind together all three letdowns.
“The common theme is not concentrating for the entire 40 minutes,” Williams said. “But the other theme is that the other teams that we’ve been playing are pretty good. All three played in the tournament. They’re not chopped liver.”
While UNC can’t do anything about the competition, which will only get tougher from here on out with Butler coming up Friday and a potential Elite Eight showdown with either Kentucky or UCLA on Sunday, senior forward Isaiah Hicks said that the concentration part is something on which he and his teammates can certainly improve.
“At this stage, every team is going to take advantage of every opportunity, no matter when it is,” Hicks said. “We know when the game is on the line we can make the tough plays. We’ve done it before. But now we have to stay focused for the first 37 minutes rather than just waiting until the last three.”
Although it might not have seemed like it at the time, the Tar Heels’ ability to climb their way out of the hole they dug for themselves against the Razorbacks could actually benefit them as they move closer to their goal of returning to the national championship game for the second straight year.
Assuming they don’t suffer any more damaging letdowns.
“We think we needed that game,” senior guard Nate Britt said. “It was a tough game and we had to grind it out and make plays in the last three minutes to win it. We haven’t had a game like that all year, so we have to take that and learn from it.”