Nothing could be finer than Cardiac Carolina in the Sweet 16
North Carolina played in its 176th NCAA Tournament game on Saturday afternoon at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth. You’d be hard-pressed to find one of those games crazier than the one the Tar Heels just played against defending national champion and East Region No. 1 seed Baylor. At the end of 45 rollicking, rambunctious, riveting minutes, it was the 8 seed Tar Heels who prevailed, ousting the Bears 93-86 in overtime.
Should it have ever gotten to overtime? Of course not.
North Carolina dominated the first half, and eventually led by 25 points with just 10:09 remaining in the game, buoyed by brilliant play from super senior transfer Brady Manek and a career day from sophomore guard RJ Davis. Collectively, the duo poured in 56 of the Tar Heels’ 93 points, connecting on 9-18 3 point attempts in the process.
Baylor, a banged up version of a defending national champion that started 15-0 but closed the season a mortal 11-5, looked dead in the water, unable to guard North Carolina on the perimeter and struggling to contend with the length of Armando Bacot and Leaky Black defensively. Meanwhile, Manek, the Larry Bird/Grizzly Adams look-alike who elected to play a 5th year of college basketball precisely for a moment like he had Saturday, was unconscious, scoring 26 points in 26 minutes, and doing it with defenders in his grill all afternoon.
Brady Manek is channeling his inner Larry Bird rn 🔥 pic.twitter.com/oJ43v8vsBq
— SLAM University (@slam_university) March 19, 2022
For half an hour, as the Tar Heels’ lead swelled and swelled, it looked as if the Bears would go out with a whimper, the latest in a long line of defending national championship programs unable to repeat.
That’s when enough controversy to fill a small town Carolina church on Easter Sunday hit.
Manek was ejected for this high elbow, thrown positioning himself for a rebound with 10:09 to play in the game.
Brady Manek got ejected for this elbow
Manek had 26 points prior to his ejectionpic.twitter.com/ggNHNJ27M5
— Pickswise (@Pickswise) March 19, 2022
To call the ejection soft is to offend Kleenex or toilet tissue. But whatever the merits of the call, it woke up a proud Baylor team — and left UNC without its top offensive weapon.
The Bears stormed back, cutting the lead to single digits in what seemed like an instant with a 20-4 run and using the game’s final 5 minutes to claw back and force overtime. During the Baylor run, a Tar Heels team in complete control suddenly looked like the uncertain, insecure team that didn’t grab a Quad 1 victory until February. Everything became difficult for North Carolina, from shooting to rebounding to simply inbounding the basketball against Baylor’s press.
Credit Baylor, of course, which played like the champions they are down the stretch. Once the Bears, who have won more college basketball games than any NCAA program in the past 5 seasons, forced an extra 5 minutes of hoops inside an arena in their home state, most everyone watching felt the writing was on the wall. Not only would this be an epic comeback win for Baylor, which in erasing a 25-point deficit matched 2012 BYU in staging the largest comeback in NCAA history; it would be a game remembered forever in North Carolina, discussed at baptisms and burials alike.
Carolina does NOT want overtime
— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 19, 2022
Except that’s not how the script played out.
Instead, North Carolina, playing without its point guard Caleb Love, who, after playing one of his worst games of the season with 5 points, 6 turnovers and just 1 assist, fouled out with 6:15 left in regulation, found a way. It was as if the Tar Heels dipped into the deep reservoir of “Carolina Basketball” magic the pregame Dean Dome scoreboard show brags about and pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
The Tar Heels won because UNC got incredible contributions from seldom used substitutes, like freshman Dontrez Styles, who rattled home a monster 3 to begin overtime. The assist on that basket? It came from another little-used role player, Virginia transfer Justin McKoy, who scored only 2 points in 10 minutes after being forced into action but grabbed 3 key rebounds in overtime to help seal the win. The Styles 3 seemed to settle the Tar Heels, who remembered they could win, and never trailed thereafter.
A big, or more aptly, the biggest reason?
A monstrous game from All-ACC star Armando Bacot, who toiled through the final 5 minutes and overtime playing with 4 fouls, but unlike Matthew Mayer, his star counterpart on Baylor, avoided fouling out. When the Tar Heels needed a bucket late, Bacot found a way to get it, whether it was driving aggressively and getting to the foul line or feeding Leaky Black for a huge layup to extend the Tar Heels’ lead to 88-85 with just 1:56 remaining in the extra session.
Bacot’s statline: 15 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks, will somehow be overshadowed by the insanity of Davis’ career day, or Manek lighting up his old Big 12 nemesis for 26 points before his bizarre ejection. But make no mistake, North Carolina isn’t in the Sweet 16 without Armando Bacot, and North Carolina can win games next weekend because of Armando Bacot. He’s that special a player.
In the end, it wasn’t Jordan to beat Georgetown, or Hubert Davis to Rick Fox to upset No. 1 seed Oklahoma, or even the magical Marcus Paige against Villanova (although this ending was clearly sweeter). But it was a memorable, wild NCAA Tournament win for North Carolina, the program with more NCAA Tournament wins than anyone save Kentucky.
The victory sends the Tar Heels back to the Sweet 16 and gives the program a head of steam under Hubert Davis that few could have guessed the Heels would have when they lost in the Dean Dome to Pittsburgh on a cold mid-February night last month. Awaiting North Carolina in Philadelphia will be the winner of UCLA-Saint Mary’s, a battle of two West Coast teams that while talented, aren’t quite Baylor.
The sky is the limit for Cardiac Carolina. Or as a famous Tar Heels alum once said, “the ceiling is the roof.” All the Tar Heels have to do is stay together, as they did Saturday, even when it felt like the ceiling was crumbling. Survive and advance. Sure, NC State created the moniker. But that’s North Carolina basketball in March.