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UNC Thrills, Teeters and Triumphs to Deliver First Knockout of a No. 1 Seed

The defending men’s champs are out after a bizarre game saw Baylor nearly finish off a monumental comeback.

After fifty-three fouls, thirty-two turnovers and nearly three hours of real time, the first No. 1 seed finally went down: there will be no title defense for the Baylor Bears. In the end, maybe that wasn’t all that surprising: they’d led the game for just two minutes and 34 seconds and at one point had trailed North Carolina by 25, but here they were in overtime anyway, having clawed all the way back through a cavalcade of physical play, Tar Heels user error and inconsistent officiating.

It was No. 8 seed Carolina that ultimately sealed a memorable 93–86 win, doing its best to topple Baylor with hot shooting early before pivoting directly into disarray. With 10 minutes left in the second half, the result certainly hadn’t seemed in danger, not even when Tar Heels forward Brady Manek—who had 26 points alone—was ejected, after his left elbow caught Jeremy Sochan’s face with dubious intent on a box-out. UNC was up by 25 points then, bolstered by hot shooting from RJ Davis (who finished with 30 points) and playing better team basketball in all facets. Baylor’s seventh team foul put Carolina in the bonus with 13:53 left in the second half. The Bears hadn’t been scoring or defending or doing much of anything with any consistency.

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It’s near-impossible to account for every single thing that happened from there, but just know that the 67–42 Tar Heels lead turned into an 80–80 tie at the end of regulation. Baylor ratcheted up the pressure and turned things physical, anchored by the 18-year-old Sochan, whose expert work in the ethical grey areas of interior entanglement turned the game into something … other than what Dr. Naismith may have envisioned. Sochan, likely on his way to the NBA in a few months, would not stick around long enough to become the villain.

North Carolina didn’t exactly help itself over the course of a bizarre final stanza rife with mental mistakes, bad breaks, and untimely events—top scorer Armando Bacot missed eight free throws, and with six minutes left, Caleb Love fouled out on a careless drive with five points and six turnovers to his name. Baylor kept blitzing, pressing full court and trapping every juncture and essentially daring the refs to make calls. Only four of the 10 players who started the game were even eligible to finish it, thrusting little-used players like Dontrez Styles (who added nine huge points) into action for UNC. To say the game deserved overtime would have been generous; Carolina shot 49% as a team and 44% from three, but registered 21 giveaways, while Baylor mustered its 86 points on 81 shots, giving it 24 more field goal attempts in defeat.

This was an upset that didn’t totally feel like one, not only because the opponent was North Carolina, but also because Baylor frankly never played especially well at any juncture. The Bears missed burly, injured center Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who very well might have kept Bacot from grabbing 16 rebounds. They’d fully earned their top seed over the course of a gritty campaign despite the departure of four starters, but the absences of Tchamwa Tchatchoua and L.J. Cryer left them shorthanded and grasping for easier offense.

History has proven it’s very hard to repeat as champions: that feat hasn’t been accomplished by a men’s team since Florida did it in 2006 and ’07. But teams do find their way to consecutive Final Fours: dating back to ’00, it’s been done 13 different times. Coincidentally, the last team to accomplish that was North Carolina in ’16 and ’17, led by a core of players that had been together several years, had their hearts broken at the buzzer by Villanova, weathered it and cut down the nets a year later. That type of continuity is near-unheard of in college basketball today. Despite nearly pulling off one of the biggest March comebacks ever, perhaps Baylor was never quite positioned to restart that trend.

In wake of the upset, the East has become a wide-open region, now missing its top seeds in Baylor and Kentucky. On to the Sweet 16 go the unexpected Tar Heels, who rode a hot February firmly into the tourney and await the winner of UCLA and Saint Mary’s. This is Hubert Davis’s first year as head coach, and it’s a team with clear vulnerabilities. Considering the program we’re talking about, the fit of Cinderella’s figurative slipper still feels a little awkward. The Heels squeezed in anyway.

More March Madness Coverage:

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