No. 8 seed North Carolina avoided making history Saturday, knocking off No. 1 seed Baylor 93-86 in overtime after the Bears made a run at the biggest comeback ever from a second-half deficit in an NCAA Tournament game.
North Carolina led the reigning national champions by as many as 25 points, and that was the advantage the Tar Heels held with 10:08 left in the second half when UNC's Brady Manek was ejected for a Flagrant 2 foul when he elbowed Jeremy Sochan in the face. Manek led all scorers with 26 points on just 13 shots when he left the court.
Baylor quickly ripped off a 20-4 run — aided by North Carolina point guard Caleb Love fouling out as well — and were able to apply pressure thanks to Adam Flagler ripping off a huge second half. The Bears continued to hound the Tar Heels, with James Akinjo tying the game at 80 with an and-one with 15.8 seconds left. RJ Davis' attempt to tie the game in regulation bounced off the rim.
Baylor closed the final 10:08 of the first half on a 38-13 run.
In overtime, the two teams stayed close until Davis dropped in a left-handed layup and was fouled making the free throw for a six-point lead. He finished with a game-high 30 points, including 17 in the first half as North Carolina built its original lead.
North Carolina dominated the game when Manek was in the game, and his absence changed the contest. Sochan hit a free throw to take the Tar Heel lead to 24, then Flagler scored eight quick points and just like that, the lead was 16 and the comeback was on.
North Carolina ultimately survived thanks to the play of Davis, who played all 45 minutes and scored 30 points and added six assists, and Bacot, who had 15 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Dontrez Styles also chipped in nine huge points off the bench, including a big 3-pointer in overtime.
But with Manek, who scored 26 points in just 28 minutes, and Caleb Love, who fouled out shortly after Manek left the game, back on the court, North Carolina didn't look much like the team that dominated the region's top seed for the first 30 or so minutes.
The good news? The Tar Heels now get both players back and are just two games from a Final Four berth.
A blown-up East Region
A Final Four is possible: North Carolina finds itself as the first team in the Sweet 16 of an East Region that has opened up with No. 2 seed Kentucky losing in the opening round and No. 1 seed Baylor now out as well. If North Carolina's guards continue to play at such a high level, the Tar Heels are as dangerous as anybody left in the East.
North Carolina will play either No. 4 seed UCLA or No. 5 seed Saint Mary's in the Sweet 16, with those two teams matching up later Saturday. The bottom part of the bracket sees one of either No. 7 seed Murray State or No. 15 seed Saint Peter's reaching the Sweet 16 and playing either No. 3 seed Purdue or No. 6 seed Texas.
Given that North Carolina has won four of its last five games, three by double digits, with two wins over top two seeds in Baylor and Duke, the Tar Heels don't have any reason to fear anyone left in the region if they play the way they've been playing.
The "What if" Baylor season
It'll be hard for Baylor fans not to wonder "what if" this offseason. The Bears lost four starters from last year's national championship team and were hammered by injuries: likely rotation scorer Langston Love missed the entire year, versatile big man defender Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua suffered a season-ending injury and leading scorer LJ Cryer effectively did the same, playing just once in Baylor's final 14 games.
Set against that, Baylor's accomplishments were strong: share of the Big 12 title and a No. 1 seed. And even as the short-handed Bears found themselves down huge to North Carolina in the second half, there wasn't any quit. Even without Manek on the court, to come back from 25 points down is stunning; had the Bears completed the comeback, it would have been the largest second-half deficit overcome in NCAA Tournament history.
After the game, in an interview with CBS Sports' Allie LaForce, Drew quoted former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."
Baylor is likely to lose star freshmen Kendall Brown and Jeremy Sochan to the NBA Draft but can build around Adam Flagler, who scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half, along with a top five incoming freshman in scoring guard Keyonte George. The Bears likely aren't going anywhere.