PHILADELPHIA — What promises to be one of the most dramatic weeks of basketball in the history of North Carolina didn’t start that way.
The UNC Tar Heels removed all suspense early, jumping out to a big lead and cruising to a 69-49 victory over Saint Peter’s to advance to the 21st Final Four in school history.
“They hang hat on punching teams in the mouth being the underdog,” said Leaky Black. “We had to let them know it wasn’t gonna happen tonight.”
The No. 8 seeded Tar Heels had knocked off No. 1 Baylor and No. 4 UCLA, but North Carolina’s Cinderella cred was taken by the Peacocks, who beat No. 2 Kentucky, Murray State and No. 3 Purdue to become the first No. 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight.
The Saint Peter’s coach turned into a pumpkin early, however, as UNC scored the game’s first seven points. It was the first time in the tournament that the Peacocks had trailed by more than six points, and things went downhill for the underdogs from there.
The Tar Heels were able to withstand a swarming Saint Peter’s defense that had wreaked havoc over the previous three tournament games, making it through the first half with just one turnover.
The Tar Heels strung together separate 12-2 and 7-0 runs midway through the first half to go up by 21, and the UNC defense was too much for the Peacocks. Late in the half, Saint Peter’s was shooting just 4 of 24 from the field.
Carolina put things out of reach to start the second half, opening with a 6-1 run while the Peacocks missed their first six shots.
Led by Armando Bacot, who set an ACC record with his 29th double-double of the season, UNC dominated the backboards, outrebounding Saint Peter’s 49 to 33. Bacot had 20 points and 22 rebounds, tying UNC’s single-game NCAA Tournament rebounding record. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional.
Davis became the first coach to reach the Final Four in his first season in 24 years, and he became very emotional as the clock ran down.
“I could finally settle in and realize these guys are going to the Final Four — something I desperately wanted for them,” Davis said. “I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been before the game. In the huddle, I told them it’s not a hope. It’s not a dream anymore. It’s a reality. It brings so much joy to my heart. … We’re scheduled to leave on Wednesday, and I want to leave tonight.”
The win sent Carolina to the Final Four and a national semifinal matchup with Duke. The game will be the first time the two rivals have met in the NCAA Tournament.
As UNC’s players, coaches and support staff cut down the nets, the crowd at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center chanted “We want Duke.”
The players declined to comment on the upcoming game, however, and were certainly dialed in for Sunday’s game.
“We don’t get focused on that,” Davis said. “I don’t think anything can be as crazy as it was leading up to the game over in Cameron. As I said before, we keep our eyes straight ahead and ignore all the noise. I consistently tell them to turn off the noise of phone, family and friends. Focus on preparation and practice. If we do that, our play will be good.”