By Adam Lucas
Roy Williams’ message to his team during the final media timeout of Sunday’s pulsating comeback win over Arkansas is rapidly approaching legendary status.
“We haven’t had a game like this all year,” he told his team.
The head coach was speaking about the regular season. But after roaring back from a 65-60 deficit with three minutes to play to take a 72-65 victory, Williams could alter his statement in future discussions about the win over the Razorbacks: the Tar Heels haven’t had an NCAA Tournament victory like that one—ever.
Research by the UNC athletic communications crew has suggested that Carolina has never trailed by a greater margin with less time to play and still come back to win an NCAA Tournament game. Five points in three minutes may not sound like much in the context of legendary Tar Heel comebacks—eight points in 17 seconds against Duke, or even nine points behind those same Blue Devils with three minutes to play at the Smith Center in 2005. Dean Smith helped orchestrate a 19-point comeback with nine minutes left against Florida State in 1993, and the program’s biggest ever comeback was a 20 point recovery with 14:49 left (and 11 points with 6:17 left) against Wake Forest in 1992.
But all of those were regular season games. And when you start thinking about some of the signature Carolina NCAA Tournament wins, you realize just how dim things looked on Sunday evening in Greenville.
In the 2005 championship game against Illinois, for example, Carolina did not trail in the final 29 minutes of the game. Remember it as being closer than that? The Illini tied it with 2:40 to go but never took the lead. In 2009, most people think of the LSU game in Greensboro as being a tight one. But the stats show the Tigers never got within double figures in the final 3:27, and never led in the final ten minutes.
Official play-by-play accounts, with margins and the corresponding time, only go back to 1969. But the combination of official box scores and memory suggests that the only three NCAA Tournament comebacks in Carolina history that are even comparable to Sunday night’s effort are as follows:
1977 vs. Notre Dame: The Irish held a five-point lead with 5:54 left in the regional semifinal. In one of the signature games of Dean Smith’s career, he engineered a late comeback against the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. The Tar Heels had trailed by ten at halftime, but recovered to tie the game with 1:16 remaining. Phil Ford, who finished with 29 points, made four free throws in the final minute, including a pair with two seconds remaining, to clinch the victory.
2000 vs. Tennessee: Tar Heels trailed by seven points with 4:48 remaining. In this Sweet 16 matchup, the fourth-seeded Vols held a 51-42 lead in the second half over Bill Guthridge’s eighth-seeded team. But even without Brendan Haywood, who fouled out with eight minutes remaining, the Tar Heels closed on a 15-3 run (with 11 of the points coming from Ed Cota and Joseph Forte) to advance to the regional final. Forte scored 22 points as Carolina tied the game with 3:03 left, took the lead for good on a bank shot from Cota.
Side note: the below video is remarkable for an incredibly athletic and heady play by Julius Peppers with 50 seconds left that was disallowed but should have counted.
2014 vs. Providence: Carolina trailed by five points with 4:23 remaining in the first round. The sixth-seeded Tar Heels had a 58-49 lead with 11 minutes to go, but the shifty Bryce Cotton (36 points) led a comeback for the 11th-seeded Friars. A Marcus Paige three-pointer tied the game at 77 with 1:06 left, and then James Michael McAdoo—a 54 percent free throw shooter for the year—made a pair of free throws, plus grabbed a key offensive rebound, in the final 3.5 seconds to seal the win.
Sunday’s victory featured a bigger comeback in a shorter amount of time than any of those three games. In other words, remember that pit of despair you felt around 8 p.m. on Sunday? It was completely justified.