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The University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team spent part of December being crushed by Kentucky. January brought humiliations at Miami and Wake Forest. February included being embarrassed on its home court by Duke and Pittsburgh and requiring overtime to beat a woeful Syracuse.
Then came March. The Tar Heels went over to Duke and spoiled Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5. Then, in overtime on Saturday in Fort Worth, they upset Baylor, the No. 1 seed in the East region and the reigning national champion, to advance to the round of 16 in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Each signature victory is of the stripe that can redeem any misbegotten season. But both? As Roy Williams, who retired as North Carolina’s coach last year but was in the stands on Saturday, might say: “Daggum.”
The eighth-seeded Tar Heels, who blew a 25-point lead with less than 11 minutes remaining in regulation before recovering, will meet U.C.L.A. on Friday in Philadelphia.
They — and any other team remaining in this year’s men’s tournament — might be hard-pressed, though, to author a greater work of suspense than their 93-86 downing of Baylor, the first No. 1 seed to lose this year.
Yes, Baylor won the tipoff, and with Kendall Brown’s dunk off a fast break, built a 4-0 lead in all of 68 seconds. Then U.N.C. seized it and did not even allow the game to be tied until there were 15.8 seconds remaining and Baylor had improbably erased a performance by the Tar Heels that had seemed more likely to wind up in the record books than in overtime.
Freshman Dontrez Styles opened overtime with a 3-pointer and U.N.C. managed — this time — to hold on.
“It was just something,” said Armando Bacot, one of North Carolina’s star players. “It was stressful, for sure.”
In the first half — after which the Tar Heels led by 13 — Baylor struggled mightily behind the arc and its turnovers fueled Carolina’s rise and accounted for 15 of the Tar Heels’ 42 points before the intermission.
So did R.J. Davis, a sophomore from White Plains, N.Y., who scored 30 points to lead U.N.C. by day’s end.
The chaos of Saturday’s game was, in many respects, a fitting mark in North Carolina’s topsy-turvy debut campaign under Hubert Davis, who succeeded Williams.
The Tar Heels started to rise after the 9-point loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16 and have lost only once since, to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Krzyzewski marveled over them this month, once his own team, then ranked fourth in the country, was done in by players like Bacot, a 6-foot-10 junior who collects rebounds with the zeal of an Internal Revenue Service agent, and Brady Manek, who transferred from Oklahoma and came into Saturday’s game leading North Carolina in 3-pointers.
Dive Deeper Into the N.C.A.A. Tournaments
“We knew the potential of this team coming into this season, and we just wanted to turn it around,” R.J. Davis said on Friday. “We knew after the loss to Pitt, that wasn’t the way we wanted to play. So from that point on, I think we just turned it around and started to compete. And everyone bought into their roles and that’s kind of what we’ve been buying into.”
Helped along by a flagrant foul, Baylor got around to buying into the majesty of being a No. 1 seed. There is only so much a team can do, though, on an afternoon when it trailed by 25.
Waco-based Baylor, at least, avoided the overlapping indignities of a long trip home after a miserable loss, and, thanks to a victory over Norfolk State on Thursday, the ignominy of being the earliest exiting departing champion in tournament history.
Very little else went quite as the Bears hoped.
Baylor could not manage a basket for a stretch of close to four minutes in the second half. U.N.C. took that interlude and scored 13, building a lead of 24.
Much of that came from Manek, whose 9 points in the first half came to feel small by the end of the second, when he had 17. It is virtually certain that he would have finished with more than 26 points, but he was ejected with just more than 10 minutes to play after a flagrant foul.
His dismissal proved the catalyst for the kind of Baylor onslaught that, less than two hours earlier, would have seemed like a surefire route for them to Philadelphia.
One shot after another, one opportunity after another exploited, the Bears looked like the team most expected to swagger through Dickies Arena and advance.
“We knew that as a team we weren’t going to give up, and we decided to apply pressure a lot more and be assertive out there,” said Adam Flagler, a Baylor guard. “So once we got into those diamonds and traps, we were able to get some stops and get some easy looks, and therefore got the run going.”
Baylor’s late success in pressing North Carolina, Hubert Davis said, had two consequences: It forced the Tar Heels to speed up and led to turnovers.
“They did not want to go home,” he said of Baylor.
Eventually, with less than 16 seconds left, the Bears tied the game at 80, where the score would stay until overtime.
The 3-pointer by Styles to begin overtime let U.N.C. regain control. Bacot made a free throw. Baylor effectively hung around until 78 ticks remained, with the Tar Heels up by 6 after a flurry of free throws and layups from both teams.
Then, though, time ebbed further, and the score did not change much, with Baylor, which earned a share of the Big 12 Conference’s regular-season title, squandering chances that could have drawn it closer to salvaging an afternoon and a season.
“At the end of the day, it’s hard making shots in that second game, and both of us don’t have deep benches and usually the numbers will probably back that up,” said Scott Drew, Baylor’s coach. “But they had two guys that came out of the gate shooting it well.”
Drew said he thought his team had displayed “the heart of a champion” by staging the comeback it did.
But North Carolina, a team maybe to forget not long ago, became the program to play on in March.
The surprise run of St. Peter’s will head to the tournament’s second weekend.
Murray State’s Trae Hannibal was breaking away for a dunk. St. Peter’s forward KC Ndefo raced downcourt behind him, leapt for a clean block, then sprawled out into a crowd of Murray State cheerleaders seated under the basket.
These 15th-seeded Peacocks can fly better than you think. All the way to the round of 16 in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
The hustle play by Ndefo, a 6-foot-7, 195-pound forward, showed the defensive commitment that has anchored this team, which extended its March run with a 70-60 victory over No. 7 seed Murray State in Indianapolis.
“I’m just happy for these guys, I’m kind of soaking it in right now,” Shaheen Holloway, the St. Peter’s coach, said in a television interview. “It’s an amazing vibe.”
The win for St. Peter’s followed a stunning upset of No. 2 seed Kentucky, and it came against another school from the state of Kentucky.
Ndefo was brilliant for the Peacocks (21-11) with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocks and 3 assists. Junior guard Doug Edert, whose mustache inspired its own Twitter account, added 13 points, including a huge 3-pointer that extended Saint Peter’s lead to 5 points in the final minutes.
Murray State, which outlasted San Francisco in overtime in the first round for its 21st straight win, had not lost since Dec. 22 at Auburn.
The Peacocks are just the third No. 15 seed to reach the last 16 after Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 and Oral Roberts in 2021. They will meet the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 3 Purdue and No. 6 Texas on Friday at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, where they are sure to draw a big local crowd.
They are the first New Jersey school since Seton Hall in 2000 to advance that far. The Peacocks had never won an N.C.A.A. tournament game before slaying Kentucky, which has won eight national championships.
St. Peter’s — a tiny Jesuit school of some 2,300 students nestled in the heart of Jersey City, two miles west of New York City — has now won nine straight games and 10 of their last 11. On campus, students watched the game on a big screen from an arena nicknamed Run Baby Run. The university’s spirit squad took a 10-hour bus ride to get to the game in Indianapolis so they could cheer on the team in person.
KJ Williams and Tevin Brown, Murray State’s two stars, shot a combined 7 of 26 against the stingy St. Peter’s defense. After holding Kentucky to 43 percent shooting, they limited the Racers to 35 percent. The Racers have now had five chances to reach the final 16, and have been unable to get there.
Michigan found enough magic in time to beat Tennessee.
Set aside all of the messes of this Michigan season — the ugly clash at Wisconsin and the suspensions that followed, the stinging losses, the quick exit from the Big Ten Conference tournament — because the Wolverines are suddenly winning when it counts.
Michigan, a No. 11 seed in the South region, mounted a late surge in Indianapolis on Saturday to topple third-seeded Tennessee, 76-68.
Tennessee, which had ridden a well-timed winning streak through the Southeastern Conference tournament, never commanded the game in the way it wished. Its lead never exceeded 6 points, and it missed 16 of 18 3-point tries. Michigan, which will next play in San Antonio, was hardly setting records behind the arc, where it went 6 for 16, but those points proved crucial. So did free throws: Eight of Michigan’s final 10 points came from the line.
Hunter Dickinson, Michigan’s starting center, had 27 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Wolverines. Eli Brooks added another 23 points for Michigan in a game with a dozen lead changes.
Michigan showed vulnerabilities, though, turning over the ball 15 times, more than twice as often as the Volunteers, and fueling 20 Tennessee points.
Kansas, another No. 1, got through a scare from Creighton.
Baylor might have lost, but the Big 12 Conference is just glad it avoided two debacles: Kansas, a league stalwart and another of the tournament’s No. 1 seeds, fended off Creighton, 79-72.
But the Jayhawks, whose roster boasts seven seniors and who led by as many as 9 points on Saturday, sometimes seemed to wheeze to Chicago, where they will play next. Trey Alexander, a Creighton freshman, hit a long 3-pointer over Remy Martin to leave his team trailing by just 3. KeyShawn Feazell scored on a layup off a dribble penetration pass from Alex O’Connell to trim the deficit a little more, to 73-72.
An errant pass by Alexander gave Ochai Agbaji, the Big 12 player of the year who would finish on Saturday with 15 points and eight rebounds, a chance to steal and score and rebuild the Kansas lead to 3.
Timely defense kept Creighton, which was playing without its own defensive anchor after an injury on Thursday, from scoring again, while Kansas used four free throws to push its tally to 79.
Kansas will face Providence in the round of 16.
U.C.L.A.’s swarming defense wears down St. Mary’s.
Mick Cronin, the U.C.L.A. coach, came to Westwood determined to focus on defense. And though Jaime Jaquez Jr., Johnny Juzang, Jules Bernard and Tyger Campbell can dazzle offensively, the Bruins are at their best when they are snarling and clawing without the ball.
The Bruins’ defense fueled their memorable run from the First Four to the Final Four last year, and it moved them within two wins of the same destination Saturday as they rolled St. Mary’s, 72-56.
St. Mary’s swished seven of its first 10 field goal attempts and built a 7-point lead. Then, after the U.C.L.A. huddle during the under-12:00 timeout in the first half, the game turned abruptly — surely not by coincidence.
The Bruins clamped down, holding the Gaels to 3 for 16 shooting during the rest of the half, and extended that defensive effort through the rest of the game. As the second half deepened, the constant pressure seemed to wear on St. Mary’s. The Gaels at times appeared spent.
The biggest worry for U.C.L.A. came with 6:58 remaining when Jaquez, who has battled sprained ankles in the past, turned his right ankle while battling for a rebound.
He did not play the rest of the game, and his availability will become a major story line as the Bruins move on to play North Carolina in Philadelphia on Friday. It will be U.C.L.A.’s fifth Sweet 16 appearance in the past nine years. The matchup, featuring two schools that have combined for 17 national titles, undoubtedly will be one of the marquee games of the weekend.
Having played in Gonzaga’s shadow for years in the West Coast Conference, the Gaels (26-8) served notice that they could be a tricky opponent for U.C.L.A. by thoroughly destroying Indiana in a first-round game Thursday night. Buoyed by a 34-5 run to end the first half, they cruised to an easy 82-53 win.
But Indiana, and few others, play the kind of rugged defense that Cronin demands. U.C.L.A. (27-7) is now 22-0 this season when holding opponents under 66 points.