By R.L. Bynum
PHILADELPHIA — Through all of the struggles during an up-and-down season, Carolina’s players believed they could win a national title and now a college basketball world that was full of doubters has been proven wrong.
The Tar Heels’ dreams live on after delivering a knockout blow in the first half to end the magical run of No. 15-seed Saint Peter’s with a 69–49 victory Sunday night at Wells Fargo Center in the East Regional final.
The Peacocks’ postseason magic didn’t work against the Tar Heels’ suffocating defense and their loud fans soon were quickly muffled. At the other end of the court, regional MVP Armando Bacot had 20 points and a career-high-tying 22 rebounds and Brady Manek scored 19 points and four 3-pointers to lead three players in double figures.
“It’s unbelievable,” Manek said. “It’s been an unbelievable story so far. It’s not over yet.”
The No. 8-seed Tar Heels (28–9) advanced to their NCAA-record 21st Final Four (UCLA is second with 18) the first NCAA tournament game against Duke and their first Final Four since winning the 2017 title in Glendale, Ariz. They return to the Superdome, where Carolina won national titles in 1982 and 1993.
UNC faces the No. 2-seed and ninth-ranked Blue Devils — which beat Arkansas 78–69 in the West Regional final in San Francisco on Saturday night — in Saturday’s second national (30 minutes after the first semifinal, TBS). No. 2-seed Villanova (30–7) meets No. 1-seed Kansas (32–6) in the first semifinal at 6:09 p.m.
Carolina passed Kentucky for all-time NCAA tournament victories with its 30th.
It will be the first postseason game against Duke outside of the ACC Tournament since the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils 73–67 in the 1971 NIT semifinals on its way to winning the title when that championship meant more.
Hubert Davis, who was overcome with emotion during a postgame TV interview, becomes the second first-year coach to lead the Tar Heels to the Final Four after Bill Guthridge did it in 1998. No other coach had done it since then.
“This is probably the most nervous I was before a game, because I just really wanted them to go to the Final Four,” Davis said. “And it’s something that we had talked about at the beginning of the season. And then in the huddle, I told them that it’s not a hope, it’s not a dream anymore, it’s a reality.”
Davis has been to the Final Four as a player and as an assistant coach and now as a head coach.
Davis’ longest postgame hug was with Leaky Black, who had another stellar defensive game with two steals, three blocks. He held KC Ndefo, the Peacocks’ leading scorer, to 10 points.
“I feel like it was a good hug,” Black said. “We just didn’t want to let go. It was a good little moment. Get my little pic with him. And that’s pretty much it.”
It will be the fourth Final Four matchup of ACC teams, all national semifinals. UNC won two of the previous league battles against Virginia, 78–65 in 1981, and Syracuse, 83–66 in 2016. Duke beat Maryland 95–84 in 2001.
Caleb Love scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half, giving him 39 points in consecutive halves.
Bacot easily tied Tim Duncan’s single-season record for double-doubles with his 29th. He pulled down 15 rebounds in nearly 16 first-half minutes. It was his fourth 20-rebound game this season. His 22 rebounds tied Tyler Zeller’s program NCAA-record set against Ohio in the 2012 Midwest Regional semifinal.
Bacot said making the Final Four means so much to him because of the struggles the team endured in his first two seasons.
“People kind of pushed North Carolina to the side, saying how we were done and all this and that,” Bacot said. “And I’m just so glad to make it to the Final Four, finally, and kind of cement myself. We’re not done yet.”
Saint Peter’s hadn’t previously trailed by more than six in the tournament but quickly trailed by nine early. Bacot scored four points as UNC jumped out to a 7–0 lead in the first 2½ minutes, triggering a Saint Peter’s timeout. Black added a layup. By the time Hassan Drame’s corner 3-pointer ended an 0-for-6 Peacocks start with 15:48 left, it was 9–3.
The Peacocks hung around for much of the first half before UNC started to deliver the knock-out blows. Manek beat the shot clock with a long 3-pointer to start an 18–4 run that ended with a pair of Love 3-pointers, the second from NBA length, to go up by 18.
“We knew the game plan going into this game,” said RJ Davis who had nine points, four rebounds and three assists. “We know when we take care of the ball, we play defense and we offensive rebound, we know we’ll be successful. Coming into the game, we just wanted to play Carolina basketball and that was evident tonight.”
After four Peacocks free throws, UNC scored eight straight, six on layups, to push the lead to 21. Carolina led 38–19 at halftime after holding Saint Peter’s to 22.6% first-half shooting.
“We knew as a team they had good guards,” RJ Davis said. “They rely on the guard play, so it was about pressuring the guards and disrupting their offensive flow through the guards. Once we were able to get into them on ball coverages, pick-and-rolls and disrupted it a little bit, it was good for us.”
The Tar Heels shoved the lead to 27 with a 9–2 run to start the second half and the lead never was lower than 21 after that until the final minute.
“We never wanted to look past Saint Peter’s because they’ve been a great team and they beat two teams that beat us,” Bacot said, referring to Purdue and Kentucky. “But toward the end, once I realized we were really going to the Final Four, it started to sink in and definitely started getting emotional. Me and all the players and the coaches too, because we battled through so much this year. And just to have the fight and adversity just to get through all this, it was special.”
Black locked down Ndefo, who had four first-half points and finished with 10. Black and Manek had the two nets around their necks during the postgame press conference.
Despite the large margin, Puff Johnson was the only reserve to play more than one minute.
The run for Saint Peter’s (22–12) ended with Fousseyni Drame leading the Peacocks with 12 points. The Peacocks’ point total was a season-low.
UNC 69, Saint Peter’s 49
At Superdome, New Orleans
Saturday’s national semifinals
No. 2 Villanova (30–7) vs. No. 1 Kansas (32–6), 6:09, TBS
No. 2 Duke (32–6) vs. No. 8 North Carolina (28–9), 30 minutes after first semifinal, TBS
Semifinal winners, 9:20, TBS
time, day, TV
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 10 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 5 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (5–1, 1–0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2 ACC||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2 ACC||Home||Furman|
|18||98–69 loss, 8–3 ACC||Las Vegas||Z — No. 7 Kentucky|
|21||70–50 win, 9–3 ACC||Home||Appalachian State|
|January (6–3, 6–3 ACC)|
|2||91–65 win, 10–3, 2-0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|5||78–73 loss, 10–4, 2-1 ACC||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||74–58 win, 11–4, 3–1 ACC||Home||Virginia|
|15||88–65 win, 12–4, 4–1 ACC||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||85–57 loss, 12–5, 4–2 ACC||Road||Miami|
|22||98–76 loss, 12–6, 4–3 ACC||Road||Wake Forest|
|24||78–68 win, 13–6, 5–3 ACC||Home||Virginia Tech|
|26||58–47 win, 14–6, 6–3 ACC||Home||Boston College|
|29||100–80 win, 15–6, 7–3 ACC||Home||N.C. State|
|February (7–2, 7–2 ACC)|
|1||90–82 OT win, 16–6, 8–3 ACC||Road||Louisville|
|5||87–67 loss, 16–7, 8–4 ACC||Home||No. 9 Duke|
|8||79–77 win, 17–7, 9–4 ACC||Road||Clemson|
|12||94–74 win, 18–7, 10–4 ACC||Home||Florida State|
|16||76–67 loss, 18–8, 10–5 ACC||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||65–57 win, 19–8, 11–5 ACC||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||70–63 win, 20–8, 12–5 ACC||Home||Louisville|
|26||84–74 win, 21–8, 13–5 ACC||Road||N.C. State|
|28||88–79 OT win, 22–8, 14–5 ACC||Home||Syracuse|
|5||94–81 win, 23–8, 15–5 ACC||Road||No. 9 Duke|
|— ACC Tournament —|
|10||63–43 win, 24–8||Brooklyn||Virginia|
|11||72–59 loss, 24–9||Brooklyn||Virginia Tech|
|— NCAA tournament —|
|17||95–63 win, 25–9||Fort Worth, Texas||Marquette|
|19||93–86 OT win, 26–9||Fort Worth, Texas||Baylor|
|25||71–66 win, 27–9||Philadelphia||No. 11 UCLA|
|27||69–49 win, 28–9||Philadelphia||Saint Peter’s|
|2||8:49, Saturday, TBS||New Orleans||No. 9 Duke|
Photo via @UNC_Basketball