North Carolina is still in the NCAA tournament, but just barely. The Tar Heels almost fell to Arkansas in a second-round shocker on Sunday evening, but they recovered and got some breaks down the stretch to win, 72-65. The game was far closer than that.
It would’ve been a stunning upset. No. 8 Wisconsin’s win against top overall seed Villanova on Saturday was a pretty big one, but this would’ve been bigger.
North Carolina is one of the three or four best teams anywhere, and it almost lost to a fairly anonymous opponent from the SEC.
"We were really lucky," Roy Williams told TNT after the game. He wasn't wrong.
The end of the game was packed with breaks for the Heels.
With about 49 seconds left and UNC leading by a point, the Heels let the shot clock wind all the way down. Guard Joel Berry threw up a low-percentage shot — junk, really — that rimmed out and was tipped in by Kennedy Meeks.
That made it a three-point lead for North Carolina, but there’s a good case that the play should’ve been over before Meeks ever had a chance to score. That’s because Berry made hard contact with Arkansas’ Adrio Bailey. It looked like a charge, and if it wasn’t, it was a blocking foul that should’ve required free throws, not a tip-in.
I’m not sure what the right call there is. It’s not to swallow the whistle, though.
North Carolina also benefited from back-to-back missed free throws by Arkansas’ Moses Kingsley when UNC’s lead was still three points later in the last minute. After that, Berry missed the front end of a one-and-one, setting up Arkansas with a chance to tie the game on the other end. And, boy, did the Hogs come close.
Anton Beard gave that a really good try. Had he been shoulder-pressing a couple of pounds fewer, that shot would’ve gone down, and we’d probably have had overtime.
But UNC’s luck went beyond a few plays at the end.
For Arkansas to have any real chance, it seemed the Razorbacks would need to reverse course on what’s been one of their biggest flaws all season: defensive rebounding.
Arkansas has done a terrible job for most of the year defending its own boards, while North Carolina has been, bar none, the best offensive rebounding team in the country. The Heels entered this game collecting rebounds on 42.2 percent of their missed shots.
What happened? Not that. North Carolina kept pounding the offensive glass. The Heels had a bad shooting game (38.1 percent from the field), but on 18 of their 39 missed field goals, they rebounded themselves into another chance. It’s a wonder that Arkansas managed to stay in the game against such a better team under any circumstance, let alone one where that team was getting second chances so often.
This was somehow almost okay, because UNC’s shooting was so bad that Arkansas could allow multiple shots per possession and almost live to tell the tale.
The stat effective field goal percentage is the best measure of how a team shoots from the field, because it properly weights two- and three-point baskets.
North Carolina’s three worst shooting games this year saw the Heels post an eFG% between 36.8 and 40.8. When they posted one below 44.4, they were 2-5. When they were above it, they were 26-2. An effective field goal percentage that low is almost unspeakably bad. Just 11 of 351 Division I teams averaged worse than that this year. If you’re shooting that badly, you’re in dire straits even if you eat a steady diet of glass.
UNC’s effective rate against Arkansas? 42.1 percent.
The Heels’ great rebounding gives them a lot of margin for error from the field. But everyone’s got a breaking point, and the Heels were past what’s often been theirs.
Shooting has a good bit to do with luck, anyway, and it’s a fair argument that North Carolina was, in fact, unlucky to shoot that badly. Maybe so, just like Arkansas is unlucky that Beard’s last shot was an inch or two deep.
But that Carolina is in the Sweet 16 despite shooting that badly is, for them, a minor miracle.