FORT WORTH, Texas — With the game on the line and a Sweet 16 appearance just 3.9 seconds away, transfer forward Justin McKoy stepped up to the line for the UNC men’s basketball team.
Not R.J. Davis, who scored a career-high 30 points in the game. Not Caleb Love or Brady Manek, who lit up Marquette on Thursday. Not even junior forward Armando Bacot, the team’s only first team all-ACC selection.
No, it was the junior transfer from Virginia that put the final touches on UNC’s 93-86 win over the top-seeded Baylor Bears in the Round of 32 on Saturday.
“Just being ready to step up, having their support all season in my ear, having me ready, it made it easy to step up,” McKoy said.
With 10:47 left to go in the game, a victory was hardly in question for UNC. The team held a 25-point lead over Baylor Bears after a Manek shot from long range made the score 67-42.
Manek, who had 26 points to this point, was ejected for a flagrant-2 foul just seconds after making his final shot. His departure took away a lot of UNC’s offense and opened the door for the Bears, who jumped out to a quick 11-0 run.
The score stood at 67-53.
“When (Manek) got ejected, we were just trying to regroup and tell everybody to keep their composure,” senior forward Leaky Black said.
At this point, Baylor began using a full court trap to get UNC to turn the ball over. North Carolina finished the game with 21 turnovers as a result, and the Bears kept the Tar Heel offense at bay just enough to get its own scoring on track.
As soon as North Carolina seemed to stop the bleeding with a layup from first-year forward Dontrez Styles, Love fouled out a few plays later with 6:15 left in the game. Now without one of its best ball handlers, UNC still had to navigate the Bears' press. It became harder for Davis to create his own offense while also being the primary ball handler.
The reigning champions continued to claw back.
“Up to probably the ten-minute mark, we did a really good job of taking care of the basketball,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “But I also felt at times, in pressure situations, we lost our composure. And so in certain situations, I feel like we helped them.”
And as if things couldn’t get any worse for UNC, its star big man, Bacot, picked up his fourth foul and was forced to leave the game. That was when McKoy, who hadn’t played all game, stepped in for him.
Baylor kept using its full-court press, got a steal on the inbounds pass and Matthew Mayer hit a three to inch closer.
With just 3:30 left now, any comfort that UNC fans had after Manek’s 3-pointer went out the window. Anyone looking away from their brackets had started to pay close attention.
Later in the game, Baylor senior guard James Akinjo converted on two and-one opportunities, including one with just seconds left in regulation to even the score.
Now in overtime, what once looked to be a statement victory over the No. 1 seed Bears looked like a collapse of epic proportions for UNC. The Tar Heels entered the final five minutes both short-handed and without momentum.
But what the team did have was the presence of mind to pick up the pieces and finish the game.
“I didn't want to go home,” R.J. Davis said. “There was no time to be tired. When we were going to overtime, I knew what was at stake.”
The lineup UNC rolled out in overtime featured starters Bacot, Davis and Black, but also McKoy and Styles. The latter two, who both average fewer than eight minutes per game, were poised to fill in at a moment’s notice.
“I put in a lot of work after practice, before practice,” Styles said. “I think coach Davis was trusting me to go out there and perform.”
The players did just that, stepping up during overtime. Styles broke the tie by making a rare 3-pointer in the corner, taking a few jab steps before rising up.
Most of the scoring was handled by the starters, but for the reserves in this situation, keeping the ship afloat was just as important as sailing it.
Davis later drove in the dagger by earning an and-1 opportunity to extend the lead to six. From there, Baylor simply played the foul game to try securing extra possessions and hope for some misses.
As fate would have it, McKoy was the final player the Bears fouled.
Though he’s only scored 31 points on the season, none were more significant than the two he earned at the charity stripe with 3.9 seconds left.
As soon as the buzzer sounded, the Tar Heels rushed to the middle of the court and began to celebrate.
They weathered the storm, overcame the odds and fought to keep their season alive.
And when there were no high-scoring stars left to continue that fight, McKoy and Styles proved that the Carolina blue on their chests means just as much to them.
“The only thing that you are required to do is, when that opportunity comes, to be ready,” Hubert Davis said. “And Justin and Dontrez were ready.”
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