Following consecutive wins over No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 4 seed UCLA, the North Carolina men’s basketball team will face a different sort of challenge in the Elite Eight on Sunday.
No. 15 seed St. Peter’s — a team that has advanced further than any No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history — stands between the Tar Heels and their first Final Four appearance since 2017.
Despite their modest rating entering the Big Dance, the Peacocks have proven capable of beating some of college basketball’s best teams — including Kentucky and Purdue, two teams that North Carolina lost against early in the regular season.
“They have a chip on their shoulder,” UNC head coach Hubert Davis said. “On Sunday, it will be our toughest game of the year.”
Here are the main keys for the Tar Heels to avoid the upset and earn a trip to New Orleans.
Executing down the stretch
In its three tournament games, the Peacocks have won by an average of 6.3 points. No team has managed to get big leads on them, and the team has excelled in pulling away at the end of games.
Whether the game is high-scoring or a defensive battle, the team hangs around and takes control late.
“We've kind of played games like this all year,” Peacocks head coach Shaheen Holloway said. “We didn't really blow nobody out. We're not built like that. That's not the culture of our team.”
The team managed to force overtime against Kentucky with timely shots that answered baskets from the Wildcats. This was pioneered in regulation by Doug Edert, who made a clutch three to go up by one and later a driving floater to tie the game.
The team held on to win by making free throws in the final minute and getting the necessary stops.
Against Purdue on Friday, the Boilermakers never led by more than six. St. Peter’s led for just 12 minutes and 50 seconds in the game and still won by three.
“It starts from the beginning of the game with our pressure on defense,” Edert said. “We're just wearing people out. So by the end of the game, they're exhausted, and I feel like our willpower is just way more advanced, and we just want it so bad.”
Thus far, UNC has won its own close games late against Baylor and UCLA. The team staved off a rally from the Bears in the Round of 32 to win in overtime after losing both Caleb Love and Brady Manek earlier in the game.
The team beat the Bruins on Friday thanks to Love’s offensive explosion in the second half. UNC built on that to extend the lead late at the free throw line.
The difference in Sunday’s Elite Eight game will be how both teams can play in crunch time. If the Tar Heels can avoid giving up last-second runs and make foul shots, they will be in good shape.
Opening up the paint
Two things have been true about the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s offense this year: junior forward Armando Bacot must produce, and someone has to produce on the perimeter.
Throughout the season, Bacot has averaged a double-double — averaging 16.4 points and 12.5 rebounds per game heading into Sunday’s contest — due in large part to being UNC’s default big man with Manek’s perimeter-oriented game.
St. Peter’s has been successful at controlling the paint, despite large size disadvantages, throughout the tournament.
Against Purdue — a team touting dominant 7-foot-4 big Zach Edey — the Peacocks held their own and held Edey to 11 points. If the Tar Heels want to open up the paint for Bacot, someone will have to hit shots from the perimeter.
Against Baylor, it was sophomore guard RJ Davis. Against UCLA, it was fellow sophomore Love. North Carolina is at its best when one of its perimeter weapons is performing well and Bacot is dominant.
To avoid an upset and reach the Final Four, that will have to be the case on Sunday.
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