Luke DeCock

On day of upsets, Tar Heels waver but hold on to advance

North Carolina’s Marcus Paige drives to the basket between Harvard’s Steve Moundou-Missi (14) and Jonah Travis (24) for two of his 12 points during the second half of their second round game in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla.
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige drives to the basket between Harvard’s Steve Moundou-Missi (14) and Jonah Travis (24) for two of his 12 points during the second half of their second round game in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. rwillett@newsobserver.com

As the shot was in the air, the shot that could have ended North Carolina's season, the Tar Heels' future was entirely out of their hands. They once had control. They no longer did.

“Did you think it was going in?” Kennedy Meeks was asked.

Meeks looked down, shook his head, exhaled, looked back up.

“I didn't know what to think,” he said. “I was just praying that it wouldn't.”

The shot, by Harvard's Wesley Saunders, hit the rim and bounced away. Disaster averted, finally. Down two with 76 seconds to play after leading the entire game, the Tar Heels scored the final four points for a 67-65 win Thursday in their opening game of the NCAA tournament.

On a day when no higher seed had any right to feel safe, there was a brief moment in both halves when No. 4 seeded North Carolina looked like it was exactly that: safe.

But the Tar Heels never were, certainly not after Siyani Chambers' four-point play gave Harvard its first lead, putting what once looked like a potentially authoritative win very much in doubt. The Crimson, which had won as many NCAA games as North Carolina the previous two seasons, was not easily disposed.

J.P. Tokoto had worked hard for 15 seconds to deny Saunders, who led Harvard with 26 points, the ball on that play, only for Chambers to hit the shot and draw the foul on Marcus Paige. (“It's a smart play,” Paige said. “I would have done the same thing.”) After two Justin Jackson buckets, Meeks missed a free throw. Harvard came up the court for the win. This time, Tokoto contested Saunders' shot just enough.

It rattled out. The Tar Heels survived after flirting with danger.

On a day when upsets and underdogs dominated, that wasn't a very good idea. And 13th-seeded Harvard was as much an underdog as it was underseeded.

The signature moment came here in Jacksonville, where 14th-seeded Georgia State's comeback to upset Baylor combined drama, pathos, joy and slapstick: R.J. Hunter's go-ahead 3-pointer at the end of the game, with his father, coach Ron Hunter, falling off the stool where he sat with one leg in a cast. It's going to be hard to top that over the next three weeks.

The Tar Heels' own Jarod Haase, a former Roy Williams assistant, actually beat Georgia State to the finish line when Haase's 14th-seeded Alabama-Birmingham upset Iowa State, and UCLA had something to prove in its victory over Southern Methodist.

By the time the Tar Heels took the floor to a strangely empty building, the fans still returning after being held outside during an unusually short turnaround from the second afternoon game, they knew exactly how many upsets had taken place elsewhere.

“We watch the games,” Paige said. “Everyone's tweeting about it, talking about it. But that doesn't really cross your mind at all during the game, even when it gets down to crunch time. … We saw Notre Dame pull out a tough win. We saw Iowa State went down, we saw Baylor go down, R.J. Hunter was fantastic. We definitely watch. It's just as exciting for us as it is for fans.”

They were so nearly on that list.

But even on a day when double-digit seeds posted victories in four of eight afternoon games, you can always count on Williams to get to the second game. He's 25-0 in his career in the opening round, even if it isn't always easy.

“It's the luckiest I've ever felt after a basketball game in my entire life,” Williams said.

North Carolina, having avoided the upset Thursday, will try again Saturday against the winner of Thursday's late game between Arkansas and Wofford. The way things went Thursday, it was impossible to assume the Razorbacks would advance the way the Tar Heels did.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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