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Thursday August 18th

In Hubert Davis' first season, here's how UNC made its historic run to the Final Four

UNC junior forward Armando Bacot (5) blocks the ball during a home men's basketball against Florida State on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. The Tar Heels won 94-74.
Buy Photos UNC junior forward Armando Bacot (5) blocks the ball during a home men's basketball against Florida State on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. The Tar Heels won 94-74.

Two games, 80 minutes. That’s all that stands between North Carolina and raising a seventh NCAA championship banner.

About a month ago, the aforementioned statement seemed nearly impossible. Fast forward to now, and the Tar Heels are preparing for one of the most anticipated matchups of the Tobacco Road Rivalry: a Final Four clash against Duke.

The primetime bout marks the blue bloods’ first-ever meeting in the NCAA Tournament and sits as a fitting pit stop — or exit — to a season's road that’s been anything but linear for UNC.

Here's a look at UNC's path to the national semifinal.

The winter worries

Back in November, everything seemed aligned for a smooth transition for first-year head coach Hubert Davis. More experience at the guard position, timely transfers and an elite centerpiece in Armando Bacot helped the Tar Heels earn a top-20 ranking in the preseason.

Early on, the Tar Heels took care of inferior opponents, vaulting to No. 18 heading into their first true tests of the season. But the early magic ran out, as North Carolina dropped contests against ranked opponents Purdue and Tennessee.

And so, the early winter worries began.

In just two games, UNC plunged out of the top 25, and cries of a lack of effort began to flutter amongst the Tar Heel faithful. Soon, those cries became shouts.  

Losses to Kentucky, Miami and Wake Forest came by an average of 26 points and seemed to follow the same script — North Carolina got punched early in games and never responded.

That script was reciprocated in the season’s first bout against Duke. The Blue Devils sprang to an early 11-point lead and never looked back to blow out UNC by 20 points. In a game that was never competitive, the Tar Heels booked themselves a first-class ticket to the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Bursting through the bubble

No team has its eyes set on the bubble, as the heightened stakes of each game create an ongoing pressure that looms over a team until the bubble eventually bursts.

The only way to escape is to win games.

So, the Tar Heels did just that with a four-game win streak in late February that featured a gritty 65-57 win at Virginia Tech and a thrilling 88-79 victory over Syracuse.

To extend its win streak to five games, North Carolina faced off against Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium that featured nearly 100 former Duke players in attendance.

Yet, the Tar Heels played spoiled the festivities and fanfare, winning 94-81 to propel themselves into a safe space in the NCAA Tournament field.

Tip-toeing to the Big Easy

This year, “March Madness” has been an understatement.

Following a 95-63 first-round thrashing of Marquette, the No. 8 seed Tar Heels squared off against the defending national champions, the Baylor Bears. With just over 10 minutes to go, North Carolina held a commanding 25-point lead, but graduate forward Brady Manek was disqualified on a flagrant-2 foul.

The Bears came clawing back, forcing overtime against the undermanned Tar Heels. But in the end, UNC didn't back down.

On the first possession of overtime, first-year forward Dontrez Styles elevated for a 3-point attempt late in the shot clock.

Knockdown. 

Looking like a seasoned veteran, Styles canned the biggest shot of his young career and helped UNC fend off Baylor in overtime.

The next game was equally electric. This time, Caleb Love was the hero.

In the waning minutes of a back-and-forth affair against UCLA, Love drained two 3-point shots to put the Tar Heels up for good. The first make came after Bacot jumped for a loose ball and heaved it backward to Love, who knocked down the game-tying shot.

Rolling into the regional final, North Carolina squared off against the Cinderella story of the tournament: the No. 15 seed St. Peter’s Peacocks. In a 69-49 UNC rout, the Tar Heels sent the Peacocks home.

And with that dominant victory, the label of Cinderella team was passed on to UNC, as the Tar Heels have tiptoed their way — in their Jordan slippers — to New Orleans with one goal in mind:

Hanging another banner.  

sports@dailytarheel.com 

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