GREENVILLE, S.C. — Sometimes the most effective pep talks are the kind that don’t even need to be spoken.
The North Carolina basketball team experienced one of them Sunday as it struggled in the closing minutes to avoid a second round NCAA tournament elimination at the hands of Arkansas.
“When we came out of the three-minute time out, we just said ‘this can’t be it. This can’t be the way we lose,'” junior guard Theo Pinson said. “Nobody said it in the huddle, but I know every single one of us was thinking the same thing.”
It was an unspoken sense of urgency that kicked in shortly after play resumed. Following a basket that put the eighth-seeded Razorbacks ahead by five with 3:28 remaining, the Tar Heels turned up their defensive intensity and scored the game’s final 12 points to escape with a 72-65 victory at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
The win came on a night in which UNC committed 17 turnovers, squandered a 17-point lead and got a combined 7 for 27 shooting performance from stars Justin Jackson and Joel Berry.
As unsightly as it might have been at times, the effort was still good enough to advance coach Roy Williams’ team into a Sweet 16 date with Butler in Memphis on Friday. At this time of year, that’s all that really matters.
“That’s your season on the line,” Jackson said of the late surge that ended with his steal and dunk just before the final buzzer. “Everybody really believed we could come back and win, but before that we had to make stops on the defensive end and I think we did that.”
With a little help from its suddenly tentative opponent, which missed a pair of free throws and twice ran the shot clock down to the end before firing up long 3-point heaves, UNC held the Razorbacks scoreless on their final six possessions to pave the way for its comeback.
Along the way, Pinson took a page out of rival Duke’s book by slapping the floor immediately after teammate Isaiah Hicks hit a pair of free throws to put the Tar Heels ahead 66-65 with 1:44 left.
UNC (29-7) got the stop it needed when Kennedy Meeks blocked a 3-point attempt by Arkansas’ Daryl Macon. Then, with the shot clock running down on the other end of the court, Berry made the most decisive play of the night. Considering that the junior guard went just 2 of 13 from the floor, it’s somehow fitting that it came on a miss.
Berry may also have gotten away with a walk and a charge on defender Adrio Bailey, but neither were called as he fired up a prayer that was answered by a perfectly positioned Kennedy Meeks — whose tap-in off the glass gave the Tar Heels a little breathing room at 68-65.
“You never know how the whistle’s going to go,” said Berry, who indicated that his injured right ankle began to bother him as the game went on. He finished with 10 points. “I just did a great job of just trying to get the ball up on the board, because we work every single day and Coach emphasizes it so much for our bigs and wings to get to the backboard. Thank God for Kennedy, because he made up for my bad shot and we got the tip-in.”
Meeks led UNC with 16 points and 11 rebounds, the last of which was the 1,000th of his career.
He also had three blocked shots and sparked an early run that saw the Tar Heels threaten to run away and hide early. They rolled out to a 30-13 lead in the opening 14½ minutes before suffering the same kind of last first half letdown that haunted them at last week’s ACC tournament in Brooklyn.
This time, they turned the ball over three times and allowed Arkansas to make its final six field goal attempts for a 16-6 run that turned the apparent rout into a fight for postseason survival.
“We started off strong, then we let up and they took advantage of it,” said Hicks, who scored six of the 12 points in his team’s final spurt. “That’s our lesson moving forward. We can’t have that.
“We were getting out of what we did that was successful. We started taking bad shots, let up on defense. But the last three minutes we finally just picked it back up.”
And not a moment too soon.
“It was gut check time at the end,” Pinson said. “We knew if we could got the stops, we could get a bucket.”