The North Carolina Tar Heels are coming back to the Sweet 16 in Hubert Davis’ first year as head coach after upsetting a #1-seed for the 9th time in program history. The 8th-seeded Heels withstood a furious second-half comeback from the Baylor Bears that forced overtime, then jumped out to a lead in overtime and held off the defending champs to punch their ticket to the next round, winning by a final score of 93-86.
UNC got busy early after Baylor scored the first four points, jumping out to an 11-point lead after the first eight minutes against the defending champions largely on the back of hot shooting by R.J. Davis and excellent team basketball by the entire group. The teams more or less traded baskets the rest of the way, with UNC fighting off a couple of cold stretches with quick scoring runs to ultimately go into the half up 13, 42-29. Davis had 17 to lead all scorers with 4 three-pointers, and UNC was playing excellent team basketball, with 12 assists on 14 buckets, and executing just as well on the other end, holding Baylor to just 2 assists and forcing 8 turnovers. There were some hints of chippiness; Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan was called for a deadball technical foul for tripping Armando Bacot from the floor and continued to flirt with the borders of legality with contact in the paint on both Bacot and Brady Manek.
Dontrez Styles played five pivotal minutes in the half, playing great defense on Baylor’s dangerous wings, rebounding out of his area, and moving the ball on offense, though he did also have a bad turnover, and was rewarded at the end of the half with a layup in transition. Caleb Love, meanwhile, was quiet after his first-round explosion, hitting just 1 of his five attempts for five points.
The Heels started the second half much as they’d ended the first, holding serve against increasingly physical play from Baylor — the Bears were called for three fouls in the first 90 seconds, including Matthew Mayer’s fourth foul and Flo Thamba’s third. After an R.J. Davis three from the corner broke the lid on the basket for UNC, Brady Manek went into takeover mode, hitting two free throws, a layup, and two three-pointers that ballooned the UNC lead to 23, seemingly unable to miss, while the Baylor players’ heads were starting to hang as they sensed their fate.
Then, things started going very differently. Manek threw out a high elbow boxing out of Sochan, who’d been grabbing his torso under the basket, and hit Sochan’s face, triggering a Flagrant 2 Foul that earned him an ejection from the game in what had been gearing up to be a career afternoon. Baylor seized the opportunity to go on a 9-0 run before Sochan and Bacot’s legs got tangled under the basket, which Sochan followed up by trapping Bacot’s feet again to make him hit the ground while trying to get up. The officials inexplicably called a double foul, and then on review decided to top that call with a deadball technical on Bacot for apparently tripping Sochan. UNC went cold, not helped by their inability to respond to tight halfcourt pressure from Baylor (aided by refs deciding not to call hand-checks, reach-ins that made contact, or outright blocking fouls on the perimeter), and Baylor kept chipping away at the lead. Styles provided a little bit of breathing room with 4 quick points, including a layup off a forced turnover in the backcourt, and then UNC lost a second starter with 8 minutes still to play when Caleb Love picked up his fifth foul on a charge that certainly looked to have been on a Baylor player was still getting to the spot when contact was made.
(Look, I usually don’t talk about officiating this much in recaps, but this was possibly the worst-officiated game, particularly in this stretch, I’ve ever seen)
The rest of the half was marked by Baylor making enough shots to keep inching closer while UNC couldn’t break Baylor’s full-court pressure with just one ball-handler on the floor, unable to inbound without turning it over or find good shots if they made it to the halfcourt except occasionally. Baylor’s Adam Flagler particularly caught fire, getting to the rim at will against Davis and getting up to 26 points scored for the game, and suddenly UNC only was up 9 with 3:44 to go. Baylor cut it to 6 over the next two minutes as UNC played seemingly mostly to drain the clock if they could get into the halfcourt, which they weren’t doing often enough to make this a successful strategy. With about 2:30 go, to Davis miraculously drew a foul on an end-of-shot three-pointer, then nailed all three free throws to put his team back up 9, but Baylor responded quickly with a three-pointer and then forcing a turnover on a bad offensive possession that led to an and-one layup that cut the UNC lead to 3 with just over a minute to go. At this point, Baylor was trying to foul in the backcourt, and Matthew Mayer should have been called for his fifth for swiping at Leaky Black on an inbounds, but the call was to play on, even after Mayer twisted his ankle tripping over his teammate. UNC took advantage of the five-on-four to get Bacot a three-point play opportunity, which he cashed in to push the lead to six. Justin McKoy, in for Manek, forced a turnover on the other end, and UNC had a six-point lead with 76 seconds to go.
Baylor forced another turnover on the inbounds following that play, though, leading to a made free throw for Baylor with almost no time off the clock. Bacot pushed the lead back to 6 with a free throw on the next possession, but his inability to hit both and push the lead to 3 possessions was a killer, as Sochan banked in a three-pointer with 28.5 seconds left, his only make from distance for the game, and the lead was three. Baylor forced a stop and got an and-one layup on the other end from James Akinjo to tie things up with 15 seconds to go, and after a timeout on the sideline, an R.J. Davis three-pointer to win the game fell short, with the game headed to overtime — something that hadn’t even been on the table with UNC up 25 with 12 minutes to go. With two UNC starters out and another two in foul trouble, overtime looked tenuous, and UNC’s upset bid appeared all but dead.
Dontrez Styles changed that quickly, though, with a huge three-pointer to open scoring in overtime that gave the Heels new life. Bacot extended the lead to two possessions with a made free throw on UNC’s next possession, but then Baylor put together a basket, a forced charge on McKoy, and a free throw from Sochan. From there, Bacot started forcing the issue with the Baylor frontcourt, drawing a foul on Thamba to foul him out and then one on Mayer to finally foul him out as well, hitting 3 of his four free throws in doing so to put UNC back up two. Bacot drew yet another foul with a chance to put UNC up two possessions again, but missed both, then Akinjo drew a foul and hit one free throw — UNC had a one-point lead with two minutes left in overtime. Leaky Black made a great cut for an easy basket to make the lead three, then Akinjo, seemingly excited for the opportunity to be a hero, took a quick three-pointer that missed badly. UNC had a 3-point lead with 90 seconds to go.
And then R.J. Davis showed back up, after having been flummoxed by the lack of a ballhandling partner to deal with pressure for much of the last 14 minutes of game time. The guard punished a switch with an impossible lefty layup and got fouled to boot, hitting the free throw to silence the Baylor fans in the building and put his team up 6 with 78 seconds to go. Baylor got to the rim on the ensuing possession, but missed a relatively uncontested layup and then Sochan overcommitted to the follow dunk, missing off the back rim. Baylor still got the team rebound thanks to an early timeout call, but were unable to cash in, and UNC had the ball with 40 seconds to go. From there, I’ll hand it off to my notes:
- Flagler draws a foul, but because Baylor’s athletic trainer came to the floor, UNC chooses the 57% Sochan to shoot his free throws. He makes one, then Baylor gets a tie-up on the miss. Seemed similar to the earlier play they got a timeout for, but oh well.
- Baylor falls down on two three-point attempts trying to draw fouls, the refs don’t bite, and an airball on the second seemingly gives UNC the ball with a five-point lead and five seconds to play, but Styles may have blocked it (or gotten hand on the follow-through, tbh) — review gives it to UNC, and McKoy is fouled with 4 seconds to go, giving him a chance to make it a three-possession game.
- HE HITS THEM BOTH!!!!! CAROLINA WILL WIN!!!!!!!!
R.J. Davis was the unquestioned hero of the game, sparking UNC’s early lead with hot shooting and overcoming his mid-game struggles to make an absolutely heroic play that ultimately provided UNC with the room it needed against the Bears. He finished with a new career-high 30 points to go with 6 assists and 5 rebounds as he never left the floor. Manek’s takeover fueled a 26-point game in just 28 minutes, and Bacot had another double-double with 15 points and 16 rebounds, marred by going 7-15 from the free-throw line.
UNC will await the winner of tonight’s St. Mary’s — UCLA game in the second weekend, but for now, let’s just celebrate that they got there. What a win, and what a season this has turned out to be.