After turning the ball over 17 times and nearly blowing a 16-point lead in its second-round win over Harvard, North Carolina knew it needed to protect the ball better in its third-round game. With its “40 Minutes of Hell” game plan and persistent full-court pressure, Arkansas awaited the Tar Heels. And the ball protection needed to be better if North Carolina wanted to survive the nation’s seventh-ranked team in turnover margin.
The Tar Heels slightly curbed their turnovers, but they forced a season-high 21 from the Razorbacks in a rollicking 87-78 win on Saturday night to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012. Head coach Roy Williams tied his former mentor and late Tar Heel legend Dean Smith with his 65th NCAA tournament win. It was also Williams' 750th career win.
The frenetic, sometimes dizzying game in Jacksonville featured an allotment of transition baskets, loose-ball fouls, and bodies splayed everywhere—the floor, the scorers’ table, the stands—in some of the most entertaining 40 minutes of the entire tournament. Marcus Paige led North Carolina with 22 points while Arkansas’s Michael Qualls turned in a valiant, if fruitless performance with 27 points and 10 rebounds. UNC point guard Nate Britt, who played only one minute against Harvard, produced one of the most efficient lines of the night with 10 points, four rebounds, one assist and, most importantly, only one turnover.
The Tar Heels had four players finish in double figures, but lost forward Kennedy Meeks (who finished with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting) to a sprained knee in the final minutes.
The first half was a torrid display that featured 78 shot attempts, 17 turnovers, 49 rebounds and one incredible floater. The play was sloppier than the average Carls Jr. commercial, but both teams’ commitment to heightened pace and frequent ball pressure provided one of the most entertaining halves of the tournament.
Even play-by-play announcer Andrew Catalon paused to catch his breath midway through the first half and comment: “This is bananas.”
The two teams, which rank in the top-20 in adjusted tempo (both average more than 69 possessions per 40 minutes), attacked early in the shot clock and frequently. The play didn’t get much prettier in the second half. At one point, Arkansas and UNC traded back-to-back turnovers on inbounds passes. But North Carolina forced Arkansas into two concentrated dry spells by switching to a zone defense that limited struggling Razorbacks’ star Bobby Portis. The Arkansas star still managed a double double with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but finished his final four games of the season a rather dismal 13 for 46 from the floor.
After the Razorbacks’ Jabril Durham sank a three-pointer with 10:55 to give Arkansas a 59-58 lead, the Razorbacks scored only four points over the next 4:58. By that time, they trailed 71-62 and would get no closer than six the rest of the contest.