In March, you do not question the manner in which you win games, you simply say, "Thank you" and move on.
For much of the game there wasn't a lot fault to be found with how North Carolina was playing. UNC was doing the things they needed to do. The tempo was where UNC wanted it. Roy Williams was freely substituting looking for an edge given Providence only uses six players. UNC controlled the boards and the offense, despite facing a zone, was good enough. The problem? UNC had no answer for Bryce Cotton.
The senior guard for Providence was pretty much as advertised. He was practically unstoppable with UNC trying Marcus Paige and Nate Britt on him as well as using the 1-3-1 and 3-2 zones. The former were wholly ineffective and the latter did slow Cotton down some but in the end, there was little the Tar Heels could to stop him. For UNC, it was shades of Harold Arcenaux, the one man wrecking crew from Weber State that sent the Heels home in a first round loss back in 1999. Cotton finished with 36 points and seemingly hit anything and everything he threw towards the basket.
Even with Cotton playing well, UNC managed a three point lead at halftime and a lead of nine at two separate points in the second half. UNC was doing enough to exert control of the game but instead of a firm grip, it was more of a tender squeeze. With 11:14 left in the game Paige hit a layup to run the lead back to nine which was immediately answered by a Tyler Harris layup on the other end. Then came a sequence that set off a near meltdown of epic proportions. Paige missed a layup on the fast break. The Friars came back the other way and hit a three to cut the lead to four. Three missed Tar Heel shots later, Providence was up two and with 4:36 left the Friar lead had grown to seven. While Cotton had done most of the heavy lifting, he started getting help putting UNC's season in serious jeopardy.
Enter Second Half Marcus Paige.
Well sort of. Paige was huge but so was Brice Johnson. The sophomore big man atoned for a fairly egregious turnover he committed trying to throw a down court pass only by scoring eight of UNC's final 21 points. It was Johnson's offense that kept UNC in striking distance opening the door for more Paige clutch shooting down the stretch. Paige hit a three to tie the game at 71 followed by an acrobatic "and 1" play by J.P. Tokoto to tie it again at 74. After the Friars moved ahead by three again, Paige answer with another huge shot from beyond the arc to tie the game at 77.
After a Providence miss, UNC ran the clock down and ended up in a situation that has to be considered the #1 nightmare scenario for this Tar Heel team: Shooting free throws with the game on the line with the special twist of it being James Michael McAdoo shooting free throws with the game on the line. The good news for UNC is McAdoo usually makes one and that he did with 3.5 seconds left to put the Heels up 78-77. Despite missing the second free throw McAdoo hustled to pick up the rebound and was fouled again taking the clock down to 1.7 seconds. The same process followed only this time Cotton lost the ball out of bounds allowing UNC to advance 79-77 to face the winner of Iowa State-NC Central.
For everything that went on in this game, enough cannot be said about J.P. Tokoto who had another fat stat line and a couple of jaw-dropping plays. Tokoto ended up with 10 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals. His continued improvement and games like this continue to point to a special season for him in 2014-15. Kennedy Meeks also had a nice game for the first time in several outings scoring 12 points and collecting five rebounds. In the second half Roy Williams opted for more Brice Johnson who ended up with 16 points and the move paid off. McAdoo also scored 16 and Paige led the way with 19 points. Five Tar Heels scored in double figures.
Granted, it was harder than it felt like it should have been. UNC was the more aggressive team, controlled the boards, had the tempo they wanted but could never quite get the spacing they needed to offset Cotton's unstoppable offense. And it also doesn't matter because winning is surviving.
For the record Roy Williams has never lost in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Ever. UNC is 29-7 in the Big Dance during Williams' tenure as head coach.