Heels Survive Harvard's Upset Bid

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – On a day of upsets in the NCAA Tournament, No. 4 seed North Carolina narrowly avoided joining the fray when Wesley Saunders’s 3-pointer from the top of the key missed its mark with two seconds left, preserving a 67-65 Tar Heel victory.

It was No. 3 seed Iowa State that first fell to 14th-seed UAB. No. 3 seed Baylor was next on the list, coughing up a double-digit lead in the final minutes before losing in the last second on R.J. Hunter’s 3-pointer.

The Tar Heels spent Thursday afternoon watching the mayhem play out at the team hotel, and by the time they arrived at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, there was a singular unanimous belief in the locker room: “It’s not going to be us.”

It almost was. The Tar Heels built a 16-point second half lead, and as they have done on numerous occasions this season, they went into coast mode.

“There were times when we were all of the way in it,” freshman wing Justin Jackson said. “And then there were lulls in there that, I don’t know what it was, we just kind of relaxed.”

If Saunders’s 3-pointer had fallen and UNC’s season had come to an end just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean, the game story would have been an easy one to write.

When UNC learned its NCAA Tournament destination on Sunday night, the school released a statement from Roy Williams that provided an impeccable amount of foreshadowing.

“The story all year long is we have to cut down on the turnovers and stop making the silly fouls and make sure we do a much better job on the backboards,” Williams’s statement read.

On Thursday, against a less talented and smaller Harvard squad, UNC allowed a season-high 29 points off 17 turnovers, gave up 23 second-chance points off 12 offensive rebounds and put the Crimson in the bonus with 11:55 to play.

Harvard rallied with a 29-11 run, spanning over 14 minutes of game time, to take a 65-63 lead on Siyani Chambers’s 4-point play with 1:15 remaining.

During that stretch, a UNC fan sitting behind the Tar Heel bench implored his team to elevate its level of play, repeating over and over again, “You’ve got to fight!”

Jackson answered on UNC’s next possession with a floater in the lane, and after Chambers missed another 3-point attempt on the Crimson’s ensuing possession, J.P. Tokoto gathered the rebound and fired down the court to Marcus Paige, who delivered a bounce pass behind a defender to Jackson for the go-ahead dunk at 67-65.

“I felt like the ball took forever to get from his hands to mine,” Paige said of Tokoto’s pass. “I saw Justin running as the ball was coming in the air, so I knew that we were going to have a 2-on-1. By the time I caught it, he had already separated, so I just bounced it to him for the easy layup.”

With 24 seconds to play, Harvard’s final attempt to win or at least force overtime was going to be taken by Saunders, who had already scored 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Tokoto told reporters after the game that he knew Saunders would want to drive the ball to the basket, so he provided space to prevent the Crimson’s star player from getting an angle into the paint.

Saunders eventually pulled up from beyond the arc as the game clock dipped under five seconds to play.

“I was just looking at his hips,” Tokoto said. “He did a little hesitation move, and I’m very fond of that because a lot of guys I’ve guarded like to do that, so I knew he was pulling up and I got a hand up and kind of bothered his shot.”

The ball bounced off the rim, Paige grabbed the rebound, and the Tar Heels exited the court into a fiery locker room scene, courtesy of their head coach.

“He was really pissed off at us right after the game,” Brice Johnson said. “I was really upset because that’s just not the way we need to play. After the way we started to gel and get to the way we needed to be playing in the ACC Tournament, we went a little bit backwards with this one.”

UNC outshot Harvard 55.1 percent to 38.2 percent, although the hustle stats broke in the Crimson’s favor.

“They really did outplay us in a lot of different categories, but we made enough tough shots down the stretch,” Paige said.

Depending on which player was interviewed, the postgame reaction was a little different.

For Johnson, it wasn’t relief or joy in moving on, it was anger.

“I can’t even celebrate after that,” Johnson said. “I understand it’s a win, but just me being a competitor, that’s just not the way we need to play. We can play a lot better than we did. Harvard really did outplay us today. We just got lucky at the end with that shot not going in.”

For Paige, it was irritation about the same issues re-emerging again and again over the course of the year.

“It was just a little frustration that in a game of this significance, this is our season, and we just didn’t quite have that pop in our step that we had in the first half that built us that lead,” the junior point guard said.

Amidst the vast spectrum of emotion in the Tar Heel locker room, there was a hint of excitement, too. The reason why was written on the whiteboard on the far wall: 32.

For the 25th time in 25 tries, a Williams-coached team won in the round of 64 and advanced to the round of 32.

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