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North Carolina's players talked all year about their run to last year's NCAA championship game — that, as painful as the loss was, it prepared them for another Final Four push.
On Sunday, down to a handful of possessions with their season suddenly in peril, the Tar Heels' experience saved them from a stunningly early exit.
Kennedy Meeks had 16 points and a huge tip-in with 44.2 seconds left, helping top-seeded UNC barely avoid a huge upset by rallying late to beat Arkansas, 72-65, in the second round of the NCAA tournament's South Region.
“I don't mind saying I feel a little lucky,” UNC Coach Roy Williams said. “Every now and then, I knock in a long putt, too.”
The team with three returnees who were on the court for Villanova's title-winning three-pointer at the buzzer last year had enough composure to shake off everything on a day rapidly going wrong.
A blown 17-point first-half lead.
Arkansas' aggressive and harassing defense.
Even a 65-60 deficit in the final three minutes, which threatened to turn the game into the kind of March Madness moment that had befallen the fellow 1-seeded Wildcats only a day earlier.
Instead UNC closed on a 12-0 run to give Williams his 18th trip to the Sweet 16 dating to his time at Kansas.
“We could've easily laid down those three or four minutes and gave in,” junior point guard Joel Berry II said, “but like I said, we've got dreams and goals we want to reach. And we just didn't want to go home.”
Justin Jackson added 15 points for the Tar Heels (29-7), including the win-capping dunk off a turnover with 3.5 seconds left. Senior Isaiah Hicks came up big late, too, with a dunk and four free throws in the final two minutes after being a no-show much of the way.
Daryl Macon scored 19 points before battling leg cramps for the eighth-seeded Razorbacks (26-10), who did just about everything right in the second half — except close out the Tar Heels.
“We came to dance and we didn't come to do the one-step,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said. “We wanted to bust up some brackets here today.”
The Razorbacks had UNC wobbling with their aggressive, mistake-forcing defense harassing the Tar Heels all over the court. And when Jaylen Barford scored in transition off a turnover, Arkansas led 65-60 with 3:28 left.
But the Tar Heels responded in a huge way.