GREENVILLE, S.C. — In a game that looked like the end of its season, the North Carolina men's basketball team rallied against Arkansas to muster a 72-65 win on Sunday and advance to the Sweet 16.
Both teams pushed the pace from the outset, but the top-seeded Tar Heels (29-7) raced out to the early lead. Justin Jackson opened the game with a 3-pointer — breaking the UNC single-season record — and Joel Berry followed with another to spark a 10-2 run over the No. 8 seed Razorbacks (26-10).
Arkansas cut the lead to five on a 3-pointer from leading scorer Dusty Hannahs with 10:59 left in the first half. But North Carolina's harassing perimeter defense and physical play inside stifled the Razorback attack, and the Tar Heels ripped off a 10-0 run to take a 26-11 lead midway through the period.
Then the game got ugly. Both teams stalled offensively during a six-minute stretch littered with missed shots and turnovers. But the Razorbacks found their spark after drawing a foul on a 3-point shot, going on a 16-6 run to enter the half trailing 38-33.
The rally continued after the break for the Razorbacks, whose full-court press forced issues for the normally sure-handed Tar Heels. Arkansas seized the lead seven minutes into the second half, and UNC's offense disappeared down the stretch as leading scorers Justin Jackson and Joel Berry struggled to find their shot.
But one possession after getting rejected on a putback attempt, Isaiah Hicks threw down a dunk to cut the deficit to one. Two free throws from Hicks gave UNC a 66-65 lead with 1:44 remaining, and the Tar Heels fended off the Razorbacks in the final minutes to squeak into the Sweet 16.
Who stood out?
The Tar Heels couldn't get anything going from their two offensive stars, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry.
After each made a 3-pointer to open the game, UNC's leading scorers combined for 25 points on 7-of-27 shooting. Berry fought through a nagging right ankle injury and dealt with a finger ailment during the game, but North Carolina's steady point guard looked lost for much of the contest. Likewise, Jackson — the ACC Player of the Year — hit a handful of 3-pointers to halt Arkansas momentum but couldn't seem to get a rhythm like he did against Texas Southern.
But Isaiah Hicks came alive in the final moments to save UNC's season. The senior forward scored two points through the first 29 minutes of the game, but his aggression inside down the stretch to give UNC the late-game jolt it needed.
When was it decided?
With three minutes left and the Tar Heels trailing by five, Berry tried yet again to revitalize his 3-point shot. It didn't fall, and when Hicks grabbed the offensive rebound and went up with it, he was met with a vicious block by Arkansas' Moses Kingsley.
But it wasn't over. On the next possession, Hicks slipped into the lane and took a Justin Jackson pass to the hole for a statement slam over Kingsley. Moments later, his two free throws gave UNC a lead that it wouldn't relinquish.
Why does it matter?
Step two is complete in North Carolina's quest to return to the national title game and avenge its loss to Villanova in 2016.
After the Wildcats lost to Wisconsin on Saturday, the Tar Heels became popular favorites to cut down the nets in April. And while a halftime scare slowed UNC on Sunday, North Carolina has looked as impressive as any team left in the field.
Where do they play next?
The Tar Heels head to Memphis to face No. 4 seed Butler (25-8) next weekend in the Sweet 16. The two teams have never faced each other in the NCAA Tournament.
The last time the Bulldogs made the Sweet 16 was 2011, when they lost to Connecticut in the national championship. The year before, Butler fell to Duke in the title game when Gordon Hayward's desperation heave bounced off the rim.
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