Isaiah Hicks pondered his career, which was potentially four minutes from finality. He exchanged glances with Kennedy Meeks. They weren’t ready for the end.
Nate Britt swallowed his fears and clung to the bench. Eleven months after losing in the national title game, North Carolina was staring at a second-round exit — and Arkansas had all the momentum.
“I don’t think any of us thought that we would lose this game or saw the road ending here,” Britt said.
With 3:47 left in UNC’s 72-65 win on Sunday, head coach Roy Williams pleaded with his team. The No. 8 seed Razorbacks (26-10) led by three. The top-seeded Tar Heels (29-7) hadn’t had a game like this all season — it was time to win one.
“We’ve got to be tough,” he said. “It’s gotta be with our brain and our heart both. We’ve gotta get stops and we’ve got to get shots.”
Ten seconds later, Joel Berry committed his only turnover of the game to give Arkansas a five-point lead. On the next possession, a frantic exchange left Berry with an open 3-pointer. So he fired, errantly, for his 10th miss in 12 attempts.
Hicks skied for the offensive rebound, but Moses Kingsley sent his put-back attempt flying into the UNC bench. It wasn’t over. But to the fans in the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, it felt like it.
“I just told my teammates to believe,” Berry said.
After the inbounds pass, Berry drew a foul and sank both shots from the stripe to cut it to three. On the next play, Hicks started to set a screen for Justin Jackson before slipping into the lane and throwing down a retributory slam over Kingsley to pull within one. Half a minute later, he knocked down two free throws to take the lead.
“We just didn’t want it to be it,” he said.
On the ensuing defensive possession, Meeks blocked a 3-point attempt to preserve the lead. On the other end, Berry bowled into a defender and threw a prayer at the backboard.
He missed. But Meeks converted his trademark tip-in to take a 3-point lead.
“This isn’t it,” Hicks said. “Let’s go. One stop.”
The Tar Heels blanked Arkansas in the final minutes. And on the final possession, the UNC defense swarmed Dusty Hannahs at midcourt for its 19th forced turnover. Jackson took it uncontested for a two-handed flush, letting out a furious scream to put the exclamation point on a 12-0 UNC run.
It wasn’t the end — not yet. A second-round scare wasn’t enough to keep the Tar Heels from their third straight Sweet 16. A similar performance likely won’t be enough to stave off Butler in Memphis on Friday. But on Sunday, the Tar Heels didn’t care.