KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The desperation inside the Sprint Center was palpable.
When the North Carolina men's basketball team gave up six straight points to lose the lead to Auburn before the end of the first half on Friday, the feeling surfaced for only a moment. But at that point, there were 20 minutes left to decide a spot in the Elite Eight — plenty of time to figure it out.
Then the Tigers came out firing from behind the arc, a response to an uncharacteristically poor opening performance, 5-for-19 from deep in the first half.
No. 5 seed Auburn knocked down its first 3-point shot of the second half just 23 seconds in. Then the Tigers knocked down two more in the next two minutes, as the momentum snowballed into a 7-for-11 rebirth from deep in the first 10 minutes of the second half. The team had built a double-digit lead before No. 1 seed UNC (29-7) could even blink, and that was only the start.
"It seemed like they just hit three after three after three after three after three,” junior guard Brandon Robinson said after Auburn’s historic shooting night, unlike anything a Roy Williams’ coached team or the NCAA Tournament has ever seen.
And the worst part, for the Tar Heels’ chances of capturing a 14th 30-win season and spot among the final eight teams in the country, was the team had nothing to counter it.
"When a team is on fire like that, and everything is going for them,” first-year point guard Coby White said, “It's hard to stop."
When it mattered most, during the second half, Auburn made 12 of 18 3-point shots, accounting for nearly 70 percent in the category during that period, compared to UNC's 2 of 13. Auburn has made more threes than anyone else in the country. After missing plenty of open opportunities, it was bound to happen for the Tigers' shooters eventually.
But they didn’t just sit around and wait for hot shooting to start. Auburn moved the ball with efficiency, running the floor not unlike what their opponent is famously known for.
Danjel Purifoy and Bryce Brown benefited from the play the most. After no made threes in the first half, Purifoy made 4 of 5 in the second half. Brown, his teammate, made 2 of 3 as the two contributed half of the big shots in the second half on the way to a 97-80 win.
The Tigers passed with a clear agenda of repositioning the defense until the three ball was there. They exposed the holes in the Tar Heel defense, and above all, found a way to make open shots.
“I think 17 is the most threes any of my teams have ever given up in 16 years,” Roy Williams said. “It was a bad time to have that happen.”
On the offensive end, the Tar Heels forced shots to try to pull back into it. But the Tigers matched their pace, preventing the deficit from getting any lower than 10 points in the final 10 minutes of play.
“I just think we did a good job as a team just recovering,” Auburn guard Jared Harper said. “Not trying to get too up, not trying to get too down.”
The 17-point loss was not the way UNC intended to exit the tournament. That was reflected in the pain and tears shed around the locker room after the game, which ended the college careers of Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson.
But Roy Williams preached a message of hope after the game, to remember "the good times" and positive memories from the season. Because now, as Robinson recounted after the game, that’s all the Tar Heels have left.
“I'm just going to miss the good times that we had — not necessarily on the court, but off the court — just going to movies, watching games together, joking around in the locker room,” Robinson said. “Those are the things that you can't get back.”
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