While that’s factually true, it’s hardly what happened.
When RJ Davis hit his fifth three over his defender and gave the Tar Heels a 52-38 lead, the game was essentially over with 14 minutes remaining. That’s how it felt. Four more quick points and a pair of poor jumpers from Baylor seemed to seal their fate. These Bears had fought all season, but in North Carolina they met a team that wouldn’t beat themselves. There was no comeback coming this time.
Brady Manek swung this game for North Carolina. The former Sooner scored 26 points on 4-8 3PT shooting. North Carolina was riding high and held a 25-point lead.
Then Manek was ejected for clocking Sochan in the nose with with his elbow. There were 10 minutes left and a mountain of points between the two teams. All the energy was on UNC’s sideline.
Well, it maybe it was all in Manek and his…hairstyle, let’s call it.
Baylor managed a brief 11-0 run following Manek’s ejection, and the Baylor fans present tried to encourage the team on. Flagler came on fire at last.
Then Love fouled out of the game with six minutes remaining. Suddenly, it seemed like North Carolina didn’t have much of anyone on the floor to see their victory through. Davis was steady, and Styles contributed some massive effort plays on both ends to stave off Baylor in overtime, but after Bacot sat for a long stretch with four fouls, North Carolina was visibly shaken. On one possession, Davis kicked the ball to Leaky Black in the corner, who quickly passed the ball back, shaking his head as though to say, “Nah, not me.” Baylor’s press defense and the mounting comeback clearly had affected him.
“They consistently started to press us, and that bothered us,” coach Hubert Davis said of Baylor’s comeback.
A pair of Sochan free throws brought the deficit to single-digits and the Baylor fans to their greatest pitch yet. During a 20-4 run that led to the moment, Flagler finally found his rhythm inside and out, making driving layups and his only three threes of the game. Sochan made himself a pest, especially for Bacot on defense. They were constantly tangled up, often with Sochan initiating the contact.
Then North Carolina suffered a 5-second violation on the inbound, one of many turnovers on an inbounds after a Baylor score. The least you could say is that the Bears made this an uncomfortable game by the end. In the coming days, there will be plenty more to say than that.
After Bacot went to the bench with a fourth foul, Davis was the only Tar Heel who seemed to want to ball. Black passed up the aforementioned three, and Davis was forced to take a shot that was blocked by Akinjo, his first of the season.
When Mayer hit a three to bring it within 6, then had the chance to hit another after Baylor stole the in-bounds, it felt like the whole game rode on that shot. He would miss, and Davis would hit three free throws to push it back to 9 with over two minutes remaining.
Then Bonner hit a three, Black missed a bunny, and Akinjo converted an and-one. The Bears — by will and miracle — were one-possession away from tying the game with 90 seconds left.
Bacot, at last for the Heels, gave Davis the help he needed, converting his own three-point play. It was 79-73 with hardly a minute remaining, but Flagler’s three clanged off. His free throw brought it to 5. Bacot corralled the offensive rebound over Akinjo with 38 seconds remaining, a massive play in the game despite missing his first and Sochan banking in a three just as the game clock wound below 30 seconds. Once Manek had gone out, Bacot was the only teammate Davis could count on, and the two of them were all North Carolina could count on.
Then Bacot missed two free throws to give Baylor the chance to tie the game.
Akinjo did. His and-one drive capped a 25-point comeback that no one but the players, and maybe Scott Drew, believed was possible.
“You get down 25, it’s easy to fold. These guys don’t,” Drew said. “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
With 15 seconds left, Davis, predictably, heaved a three, and the Bears — perhaps — had the time they needed to finish the 25-point comeback. Baylor ended regulation on a 38-13 run to force overtime.
Overtime opened with a three from Styles — only his third made three of the season — and a missed layup from Sochan. Thamba fouled out the next possession on a Bacot layup, but the star big man split his free throws again, giving North Carolina the 4-point lead early in the extra frame.
Mayer’s free throws, his drawn charge, and Sochan’s putback layup tied it again before Mayer fouled out reaching in for the ball on Bacot. Bacot made both, and UNC had the lead again with 2:49 remaining in OT.
Akinjo had the chance to tie the game at the line, but missed the first attempt, so it was 86-85 with two minutes remaining as Bacot hit Black on the cut to the basket and a score. Akinjo’s pull-up three was short to tie it, and Davis scored an and-one on the other end. With over a minute left, it was too early to call it a game, but a missed layup and a blown put-back dunk from Sochan were Baylor’s best chance to make another miracle comeback.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t keep fighting to the final second, but the ball just didn’t go in on good looks near or far from the basket.
Baylor had opportunities, but they were too tired.
“We had good looks, we just didn’t make them,” Flagler said after the game.
Refs award aggression, so as Baylor climbed back into the game largely on the back of free throws (they attempted more than two in the second half), it wasn’t surprising. The Bears forced the refs to make calls over and over, and for the final ten minutes, they were calling in Baylor’s favor on both ends after the calls had gone North Carolina’s direction the previous 30.
In the end, Baylor simply didn’t shoot well enough to win this game. The Bears were 1-11 in overtime, 34% overall, and below 25% from three. If Baylor was going to advance to a second consecutive Sweet Sixteen and possibly beyond, North Carolina couldn’t shoot 40%+ on threes. Neither could Baylor shoot sub-20% from three for most of the game and hope to be competitive.
Well, maybe that’s the wrong phrase to use in this nearly unprecedented instance. Clearly, this team is competitive no matter the score, and they had a chance to win.
Flagler and Akinjo finished with 27 and 20 points, respectively, and only 7 assists between them. Mayer, who had just 10 points, was the only Baylor player with a positive plus/minus (+16) in his final game as a Baylor Bear.
“This year, it felt like I had to show up in some way for us to be the kind of team we wanted to be,” Mayer reflected after the game. “I wrote on my mirror before the end of the year that I wanted to be defensive player of the year, and I think I gave myself a good shot at that.” It wasn’t his best game, but he fought as hard as anyone, playing the end of regulation and overtime on a seriously rolled ankle.
North Carolina had 51 assists on 62 baskets. For his part, Davis is the first UNC player to have 10 assists one game and 30 points the next. And he still had 6 assists today. If not for him, this comeback — which Drew claimed would have been the largest in NCAA Tournament history in the final 10 minutes — may have come to fruition.
This season’s team has a lot to be proud of. They won the Big XII for the second consecutive year, the first non-Jayhawk school to do that in 20 years. They earned a second straight No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, despite losing three important players (Langston Love, LJ Cryer, and Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua) to season ending injuries at various times in the season. Even today, Flagler and Akinjo flashed grimaces, limps, and spent a lot of time on the floor as their bodies screamed out for rest.
These Bears fought. Today, it was only almost enough.