As the seconds ticked down to single digits on the shot clock, Jeremiah Francis stood in a three-point stance a few feet past half court.
After a jab with his right foot, Francis drove left. The 6-foot first-year guard blew by his first defender and collided into the chest of another in the paint. His shot fell through the bottom of the net, and a whistle blew.
When Francis saw the referee in front of him signal for a blocking foul on Yale forward Jalen Gabbidon, he turned around to chest bump guard Leaky Black in celebration before finishing the old-fashioned three-point play at the line.
It was Francis’ first collegiate start. His first time playing in front of 20,000 fans in the Smith Center. His fifth game back from an injury that had sidelined him for over two years.
Yet, he’d just extended the Tar Heels’ lead to six points with 19.2 seconds left in the game. And after hitting two more free throws less than five seconds later, he helped UNC escape a near-upset with a 70-67 win over Yale.
“I believe I was born to do this, just born to be a basketball player,” Francis said. “God blessed me with this amazing talent that I have, and I never doubted myself or what I could do.”
Francis believed he’d be here all along. Even when a knee scope in December 2017 cost him his final AAU season, or when he lost his final year of high school basketball after microfracture surgery in August 2018.
The confidence he had in himself didn’t allow him to stop working. This fall, he and fellow first-year guard Anthony Harris — who had to rehab from a torn ACL in his left knee — woke up at 6 a.m. every morning to get in the weight room.
“I love Jeremiah for the toughness that he’s already shown,” head coach Roy Williams said. “The toughness on the basketball court is nothing compared to the toughness he’s already shown with how hard he’s worked.”
Now, Francis is reaping the rewards.
Since playing three minutes in his debut at Virginia earlier this month, he’s seen his playing time and production increase. In the Tar Heels’ last two games, at then-No.2 Gonzaga and against UCLA, he cracked double-digits in scoring.
In his first-ever start Monday night, he finished with 10 points, five assists and four rebounds.
With star first-year guard Cole Anthony still out as he recovers from a torn meniscus he suffered earlier this month, the Tar Heels will need Francis to continue to contribute. And unfortunately for Williams, an already depleted roster took another hit late in Monday’s contest.
With 3:05 remaining, Harris collapsed under the basket after awkwardly twisting his right knee and didn’t return to the game. The severity of Harris’ injury is still unclear, but Francis and other players had a hard time answering questions about how devastating more time on the sideline would be for the first-year guard.
“My heart breaks for Anthony, because he’d been helping us a ton with his energy and his effort out there,” graduate forward Justin Pierce said. “I’m praying for him.”
Though a win and a successful outing in his first career start should’ve been reasons to celebrate, Harris’ injury perhaps hit no one harder than Francis.
“That’s my brother,” he said, holding back tears. “And I hope everything is good. Y’all don’t know what we’ve been through to get here.”
For now, UNC will need Francis to keep playing as he has been. With the same pace, fearlessness and edge.
“I hope he continues to play well and stay healthy, that’s the biggest thing,” Pierce said. “Because we need him. We need him.”
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