The final four minutes here on Saturday at Miami unfolded like a bad dream for North Carolina, which awoke just in time to avoid the really scary part. Or maybe the alarm clock just went off — that being the final horn; the signal that time had mercifully run out.
And good thing for the Tar Heels, who managed to do just about everything wrong during those final four minutes and yet prevailed with a 75-72 victory. It was a result that might prove to be as important as any if UNC’s season ends where it hopes it will, in Phoenix and at the Final Four.
This wasn’t a game Saturday the Tar Heels had to win as much as one they couldn’t afford to lose. Not after how they played four days earlier in a defeat against Clemson. Not after they lost last week at Georgia Tech.
Another defeat here, in the sold-out and occasionally-loud Watsco Center, would’ve been UNC’s second consecutive, and something it had avoided since December. It would’ve been UNC’s third in four games, which is something it (still) hasn’t done all year.
In a vacuum, a Tar Heels defeat here wouldn’t have been terribly surprising. This building, despite offering one of the least-imposing environments in the ACC, has hosted its share of infamous UNC performances. Its 2017 national championship team lost here by 15. There was the 26-point loss UNC suffered in 2013, before P.J. Hariston’s ascendance and his summer of ill repute. (Memories!)
Just 13 months ago, the Tar Heels came down here and left with a 28-point defeat.
“We haven’t had very much success against them of late, and especially here,” UNC coach Hubert Davis, in something of an understatement, as Saturday afternoon blended into evening.
So that was part of the story for his team — that it won against a team and in a place with a knack for giving UNC fits. More important, though, was the how of it. That the Tar Heels managed a strong post-Clemson response early, surrendered their lead, came back, asserted themselves, almost gave it away, again, and finally prevailed.
“We had no doubt,” Armando Bacot, the fifth-year senior center, said after he finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds and another double-double. “We didn’t think we would lose, or anything.”
One has to admire the confidence, at least. Bacot and his teammates described an atmosphere of calm in the locker room at halftime, after their 12-point first half lead had evaporated and transformed into a one-point deficit. It was one of those quietly-defining moments; one of those times that can’t make a season on its own, necessarily, but can still provide a foundation.
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