North Carolina Tar Heels: How They Got Here
The most unlikely of the four Final Four teams in New Orleans is the North Carolina Tar Heels, the team which busted a lot of brackets in March Madness but also stopped this year’s feel-good Cinderella story. North Carolina beat heavyweight teams, but it also beat the darling of this year’s NCAA Tournament, all under a first-year coach who struggled for most of the season but kept the faith and did his best work in the most important month of the year.
The Tar Heels ran away from Marquette in a game which was never close. North Carolina bolted to a big early lead and kept increasing it into the early minutes of the second half. The Tar Heels went on cruise control late in the game. Many people might not have thought about this at the time, but the fact that North Carolina, as a No. 8 seed, was able to make such quick work of Marquette in Round 1 enabled this team to mentally regroup and find the stamina for the road ahead. If this game had been contentious and stressful, maybe the Tar Heels wouldn’t have been able to make the deep run they have forged in March Madness in 2022.
This was a remarkable game and one of the most unforgettable NCAA Tournament wins in the long and storied history of North Carolina basketball. North Carolina won its first national championship in 1957. The Tar Heels have made the Final Four in every decade since the 1950s. They own 21 Final Four appearances, the most of any school. For an NCAA Tournament win to be special, it either has to come in the Final Four or it has to include a remarkable turn of events. This game against Baylor fit the latter category.
North Carolina led by 25 points midway through the second half and seemed well on its way to a blowout victory. Then Brady Manek was ejected for a flagrant foul, a ruling which seemed highly questionable at best. After Manek left, North Carolina players became distracted and tentative. Baylor, the defending national champion, sensed weakness and scored several quick points to reduce its deficit to 17. Then the Bears kept chipping away and got the deficit to six points in the final few minutes. North Carolina committed bad turnovers, Baylor hit a few big shots, and before anyone knew it, the Bears had caught Carolina and forced an overtime period. Imagine what was going through the minds of North Carolina players at that time. The national champions erased a 25-point deficit and were flying high. Which team would one expect to dominate the overtime period? Most people expected Baylor to do that, but North Carolina immediately regrouped and took charge in that extra five-minute stanza. This was the moment when UNC began to look like a national championship contender.
This is the Caleb Love game. The North Carolina guard torched UCLA’s normally strong defense for 30 points, making one big shot after another late in regulation to lift the Tar Heels past the fourth-seeded Bruins in a battle of blue-blood programs. UCLA’s Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jaquez made the Final Four one year ago, but they were not the best players on the court. Love was. North Carolina won a high-pressure game and then earned a very unexpected opportunity in the Elite Eight.
Saint Peter’s The Tar Heels earned the right to play a No. 15 seed in the Elite Eight. Saint Peter’s is the first 15 seed to get this far in the history of the NCAA Tournament. The Peacocks beat second-seeded Kentucky and third-seeded Purdue (plus seventh-seeded Murray State) to create an incredible March Madness moment, but when they got to the Elite Eight, the lack of athleticism, size and power showed up against a North Carolina team which is playing its best ball of the season at the right time. North Carolina grabbed an early 24-9 lead and kept expanding its advantage in a game which was never close. The Tar H