The expectation going into this game was the pace would be fast as both teams love to get up and down the court. Add to that the Razorbacks defense and the odds this would be a wild ride were pretty high. Right off the bat, the game did not disappoint. The pace was frenetic and at times it may have been too quick.
Arkansas came out of the gate first hitting 5-8 shots and taking an early 10-4 lead. However, the press which was supposed to disrupt UNC became an outlet for the Tar Heels to do what it does best which is score in transition. The Tar Heels also took advantage of 11 Razorback turnovers to score 15 points and picked up another 13 points on second chance points. Despite this, the trio of Justin Jackson, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson combined to go 4-20 in the first half for just eight points.
On Thursday night, Nate Britt played just a minute against Harvard. He had seen his minutes trend downward in recent games as Joel Berry had emerged as a more viable option at the first point guard off the bench. That wasn't the case versus Arkansas as Britt came off the bench to score ten first half points and compensate for the lack of production from three key starters. Britt appeared right at home with the pace of the game hitting a three and aggressively getting to the rim. The play of J.P. Tokoto was also critical with six points and five assists in the first half pushing UNC to a 39-36 lead.
For the half, Arkansas shot just 31%, cooling down from a quick start. The Razorbacks only trailed by three thanks to poor defensive rebounding by the Tar Heels and the aforementioned scoring drought from three UNC starters. Kennedy Meeks third foul just prior to the break also complicated matters since Arkansas was winning the battle on the boards.
The second half was characterized heavily by the shrill of the officials' whistle. After a first half with 17 totals fouls called, the officials tighten the game up and killed the flow with 31 foul calls after halftime. This became a much bigger issue for UNC than Arkansas with Meeks going to bench with four fouls at the 17:44 mark. As the half progressed, multiple Tar Heels were saddled with three and four fouls.
As the second half opened up, I posed the following question.
Which team's star player can get going first?— Brian Barbour (@tarheelblog) March 22, 2015
Initially it looked like Arkansas' Bobby Portis might but ultimately it was Marcus Paige. After a 1-8 first half, Paige started raining threes. Back-to-back threes at 8:50 and 7:22 left extended UNC's lead to 71-61. It was part of a 13-2 run in response to Arkansas taking the lead back at 59-58 on a Jabril Durham three pointer.
At this stage of the game, UNC's mounting foul trouble and the Tar Heels' season long penchant for an occluded airway once seizing control of the game became huge concerns. UNC did miss opportunities to really extend to lead beyond a game high of 12. Part of the issue for UNC was Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks fouling out then Meeks leaving the game due to a knee injury. The attrition forced UNC to go small and for the most part it worked. UNC managed enough made free throws and a timely well executed transition layup to effectively seal the game.
Paige ended up with 22 points, scoring 20 of those in the second half and effectively taking the game over. Jackson, likewise, did most of his damage after halftime scoring 14 of 16 points. Britt ended the game with 10 points and went 5-5 at the line. However the stat line of the game goes to Tokoto: 13 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, two steals and zero turnovers. That last stat is probably the key one. Tokoto's care for the basketball is a constant source of concern but when he produces lines like this it shows how valuable he can be to this team.
UNC advances to the Sweet Sixteen to face the winner of Wisconsin-Oregon on Thursday in Los Angeles. What is unknown at this time is if Kennedy Meeks will be available. Meeks had an Arkansas player roll up on his knee buckling it in an awkward way late in the contest. Meeks went down holding his right knee in obvious pain and could be seen on the broadcast telling trainer Doug Halverson there was a "pop." Officially UNC is calling it a sprained knee with an MRI when UNC returns to Chapel Hill.
For now the Tar Heels are onto the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.