The comeback. It’s a Tar Heel staple, and every generation is going to have that game that sticks in their mind. It’s the game where everything seemed down, yet somehow the Tar Heels came back to win it. My generation is always going to point to the ‘93 comeback against FSU, others will go back to the eight points in 17 seconds, but if you are a Tar Heel fan there is a comeback seared into your mind.
While the Tar Heels didn’t have huge comebacks by points this season, there were three important ones that defined the season. The last one is also, arguably, the game of the year.
The Tar Heels were reeling. They had just come off a loss to Texas and wasted freshman Coby White’s 33-point effort. Now they were down eleven points to a bad UCLA team. How bad? UCLA would finish seventh in a Pac 12 that was able to send a grand total of two teams to the NCAA Tournament.
With 7:33 left in the first half, Chris Smith hit a three-pointer that extended the UCLA lead to its highest point, and after the loss to Texas there was some real concern that this team would leave Las Vegas an embarrassing 0-2. Luke Maye would hit a layup eleven seconds later that would narrow the lead, but the Tar Heels still went into halftime down by five points.
Carolina would storm out of the locker room to erase that deficit by the first TV timeout. With 13:18 left, Jaylen Hands hit a three to give UCLA its last lead. Then Nassir Little would hit on five straight points, which turned into a 10-0 run to flip the lead for good. The run became something to expect from this Tar Heel team: at a time when things were looking flat, you’d blink, and all of a sudden they’d be ahead by double digits. The 94-78 final ended up being a 27-point flip of UCLA’s highest lead. Coby White followed up his 33 point performance with a team-leading 19, one of five players to score in double digits. The win prevented a three-game losing steak, as the Tar Heels would get blown out in Ann Arbor a few days later. In retrospect, it probably helped them keep their one seed.
To continue the theme of big comebacks after bad losses, Tar Heels were coming off an embarrassing 83-62 loss to Louisville in the Dean Smith Center. The Cardinals were still in their pre-Duke collapse phase, and while a loss to them wasn’t so much problem, the effort Carolina put up was.
That effort continued against a game Notre Dame squad. Early in the season, it was known that this would be a down year for Mike Brey’s squad, but it was still early enough to where they still had hope to pull off an upset. The Tar Heels tried to end doubt early, as Brandon Robinson came off the bench to hit a three and put Carolina up by eight with 10:37 left. It sure seemed like they had turned the corner, but Notre Dame wouldn’t give in. By the last minute of the half, the Irish were only down three. Then in a flash, Dane Goodwin hit a three to tie it, Coby White turned it over, and Nate Laszewski hit a three with four seconds left to give the Irish a lead at the half.
The second half wouldn’t start any better as Prentiss Hubb hit a three to start the second to give Notre Dame what would be its largest lead at six. The Tar Heels fought back thanks to timely shooting by Nassir Little and Coby White, and then with 6:21 left, Coby White hit a three as part of his team-leading 17 points, and it spurred a game sealing 8-0 run. While Notre Dame would keep it close, Carolina eventually would hold on to win 75-69 (nice).
The turnaround spurred a seven-game winning streak, one that turned around the season.
The mood had changed significantly for Carolina by the time the Hurricanes came to town. The Tar Heels had won six in a row, avenged their loss to the Cardinals, dominated a Virginia Tech team that would be one of the few who defeated Duke, and the Tar Heels were being talked again as one of the best in the league.
The Hurricanes had been game earlier in Coral Gables, but no one expected the Canes to put up the effort that they did on this Saturday. In retrospect, considering how well they’ve played the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was a tight first half that saw the lead see-saw back and forth, but the Tar Heels managed to get it up to seven with 5:37 to go. Before anyone could feel comfortable, however, the Hurricanes went on a 9-0 run, and the Tar Heels only held onto a one point lead at the half. The frustration continued in the second half as the Hurricanes would turn that deficit to a seven-point lead with 7:34 left, thanks to a three-pointer by Chris Lykes.
Then Coby White took over.
When you look at the box score, it just says that White hit a three with 7:03 left, but it doesn’t do the shot justice. It was a fallaway shot with the shot clock running down and Carolina desperate for points. Coby would go on to make four more shots the rest of the half, with all four of them being from three-point land. The performance lit up the Smith Center, and put not only the conference but the rest of the country on notice that this kid was something special. Just look at these shots:
The last shot of the highlight gave Carolina a chance in the last minute. Zach Johnson would hit a jumper to put the Hurricanes back up by three, and then it was time for the play to get it to overtime (1:40 in the highlight)
Look at that play again. White had been so hot from outside that Miami doubles the freshman and leaves Luke Maye...you know, that Luke Maye...wide open behind the arc for the shot to tie the game. The senior nails it, and the Tar Heels would go on to win the game in Overtime.
This is arguably the most fun game of the year. Sure Miami didn't amount to much, but it showed the absolute steel that Coby White had in his game. Beyond that, it showed just how much fun he had out there. Just look at the picture at the top of this article. It’s a scene we would get used to as the year went on, but it showed exactly why Roy Williams had entrusted the team to White. It’s also the game that had a lot of fans saying “we better enjoy this now.”
Turns out, they were right.