“This statement is not one of disrespect towards North Carolina, they are great and could very well win the national championship,” said Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt. “But this was no upset out here today.”
It was nearly the identical look McCants got in the waning seconds of Carolina’s season-ending loss to Texas in the second round of the NCAA last year. Despite trailing by five with 52 seconds to play, UNC battled back and remarkably had one final chance to extend the game.
“That was supposed to go in,” a frustrated McCants said as he left the court. “We can’t play bad in the first half and have to come back all the time.”
After a McCants three pulled the Tar Heels within one with 11 seconds left, Bynum scored his final two points at the free throw line. But Hewitt chose not to foul Raymond Felton, who brought the ball up court and found McCants coming off a screen. His three attempt from the left wing was online, but was short, bouncing harmlessly off the rim and into the hands of Jarrett Jack as time expired.
“We wished we would have had a timeout, but the guys knew what they needed to do,” Roy Williams said. “We executed, got a good shot by a guy who had just made one right before that. We dug ourselves into a big hole and at the end we were hoping a shot would get us into overtime.”
But unlike Clemson, Tech, which knocked Carolina out of last year’s tournament en route to a Final Four run, knew it was capable of beating Carolina.
With the win, the fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets (19-10) advanced to the championship game on Sunday at 1 p.m. to face No. 3 seed Duke.
The Tar Heels (27-4) now await NCAA Selection Sunday to see if they will be a No. 1 seed and/or will play their first two NCAA Tournament games next in the friendly confines of the Charlotte Coliseum.
Between now and then, Roy Williams said his players can expect to practice hard with a focus on defensive fundamentals.
In an unlikely turn of statistical events, the Tar Heels got outrebounded, outshot, outscored and outplayed in the first half, and went to the locker room behind, 42-36. Carolina had trailed by as many as nine points, but sparked by a flurry of eight points, four rebounds and a block by Sean May to start the second half, UNC quickly moved ahead 51-50 with 14:29 left to play. But the lead would be short-lived.
A little less than five minutes later, the Yellow Jackets recaptured the advantage for good, although there was plenty of work left to hold off the Tar Heels.
“I think we got fat and happy,” May said. “We won the conference regular season and coming up here when Clemson beat Maryland that was a sigh of relief for us that we didn’t have to play Maryland in their backyard.”
The re-emergence of Tech center Luke Schenscher couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the Yellow Jackets. After experiencing a regular season marked by inconsistency, the 7-foot Australian finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.
“I made a more conscious effort of keeping (Sean May) off of the offensive boards and getting him under the basket a bit more,” Schenscher said. “I was trying to get in front of him and force him to get the ball further out off of the block. Even then, he made a couple of shots from there. He is such a good player that you have to keep working for 40 minutes out there.”
But it was Bynum’s day, and he would not be denied, as he converted 10-of-12 shots – 5-of-10 from beyond the arc, to go with 10-of-12 free throws.
“I was just more aggressive," Bynum said. "At the end of the Virginia Tech game, Coach (Hewitt) told me to start looking for my shot more. He told me to keep doing the things I was doing and eventually my shot would fall. That is what happened.”
Three Tar Heels, McCants, Felton and May – the Big Three if you will – each tallied 17 points. With 11 rebounds, May registered another double-double.
“We didn’t play well and we didn’t do the things that we’ve always done up to this point,” May said. “Even yesterday we didn’t play. We need to go back and regroup.”