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So much for the idea that North Carolina is soft against top-tier competition. These Tar Heels are going to the Sweet 16 after knocking off the defending champions.
No, it wasn’t easy. The Tar Heels blew a 25-point second-half lead after Brady Manek was ejected for a wild elbow and starting guard Caleb Love fouled out, and they had some issues when top-seeded Baylor turned up the full-court pressure. But they never fell behind, played with poise in overtime and pulled out a 93-86 victory Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“All year we’ve just been hearing different things about us, how we’re a soft team, how we don’t like to fight,” All-Atlantic Coast Conference power forward Armando Bacot said. “Today, I think we really showed that we can fight. To persevere in a moment like that and just come together, I’m just so proud of everyone.”
RJ Davis scored a career-high 30 points with a nifty layup while being fouled in overtime, when Bacot made the tiebreaking free throws after missing three in the final 38 seconds of regulation. Bacot had 15 points and 16 rebounds, along with three blocked shots.
A year after losing in the first round of the tourney in coach Roy Williams’ final game, the Tar Heels (26-9) pulled off a shocker for his successor, Hubert Davis, who moves on to the East Region semifinals in Philadelphia.
“Baylor’s a great team. They’re the defending national champions, and they did not want to go home,” Davis said. “They stepped up their effort, but we stepped up our effort as well and we were able to make the plays we needed to make to win the game.”
Overtime started with a 3-pointer by freshman Dontrez Styles, who was 2 of 14 from long range on the season before that. RJ Davis, who had five 3-pointers in regulation, got his only points in overtime on the off-balance layup with 1:18 left and added the free throw for a 91-85 lead.
“I didn’t want to go home. There was no time to be tired,” Davis said. “Our mindset was gather my teammates together and regrouping and to contain our composure and let’s get this win.”
Adam Flagler had 27 points for Baylor (27-7), which was 1-of-11 shooting in overtime. James Akinjo had 20 points while Jeremy Sochan had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
The Tar Heels won as a No. 8 seed over a top seed for a third time. They did so on the way to the Final Four in 2000, 10 years after beating top-seeded Oklahoma when Davis was a player for Dean Smith.
North Carolina had double-digit losses to Kentucky, Tennessee, Duke, Miami and Wake Forest, and was on the NCAA bubble before winning seven of its last eight regular-season games. That included a 94-81 win at Duke in retiring coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game.
Baylor lost in the second round for the second time in the last three NCAA tourneys. The Bears, who fell to top-seeded Gonzaga in the round of 32 three years ago, were trying to match the biggest comeback to win an NCAA Tournament game.
“Rudy Tomjanovich said it best, never underestimate the heart of a champion,” coach Scott Drew said, fighting back tears. “You’re down 25 and come back and force overtime. Real proud of these guys and the heart with which they compete. I think the perseverance they showed, the resilience all year. Spiritually, they’ve been a great group. They’ve really grown. We didn’t win on the court, but we’ve won in life.”
Manek had 26 points before getting ejected because of a flagrant foul with 10:08 left in regulation after his left elbow to the face of Sochan as they were battling underneath the Baylor basket. Manek had just drained a 3-pointer that gave the Tar Heels their largest lead at 67-42.
With Manek out, and Love fouling out soon after that, the Tar Heels had 10 turnovers as Baylor turned up the pressure and made a furious rally.
“It was just crazy because their press, they was turning us over a lot and then we weren’t making free throws,” Bacot said. “There was a lot of pressure in those moments. But, I mean, it was just a next-play mentality and we just really had to dig in and just keep pushing and just keep a level head. And luckily, we came out with a win.”
The Bears got within 76-73 on a three-point play with 1:48 left by Akinjo, who had another one with 16 seconds left to tie the game at 80-80. North Carolina had one more shot, but Davis’ 3-point try hit off the front of the rim.
“We knew that our team wasn’t going to give up,” Flagler said.
Baylor scored 11 straight points in less than two minutes after Manek’s ejection. Sochan made the second free throw before having an assist on a layup by Flagler, who then had consecutive 3s off UNC turnovers. The Bears moved within 67-53 when Akinjo hit two free throws after Bacot was called for a technical foul as the two tumbled to the floor.
Things got testy midway through the first half, and Sochan got a technical foul when he appeared to lock his legs together and almost pull Bacot to the floor with him.
North Carolina: With ex-coach Williams in Dickies Arena, which is less than 100 miles from Baylor’s campus, Davis scored the Tar Heels’ first eight points in an 80-second span after the Bears had a quick 4-0 lead. North Carolina never trailed again. Baylor tied it just before the end of regulation and once in overtime.
Baylor: The Bears outscored North Carolina 38-13 over the final 10 minutes of regulation. They fell just short of matching BYU, which overcame a 25-point first-half deficit to beat Iona in a First Four game in 2012.
BUNCH OF HELPERS
North Carolina had 22 assists on its 28 field goals, two days after 29 assists on 34 baskets against Marquette. Davis became the first Tar Heels player with 10 assists in one NCAA tourney game and 30 points in the next. He had six assists against Baylor, matching Leaky Black for the team lead.
North Carolina will play in its 35th Sweet 16 against either UCLA or Saint Mary’s.