PHILADELPHIA — North Carolina crushed all hope of a March Madness miracle in the early going Sunday, getting 20 points and 22 rebounds from Armando Bacot in a wire-to-wire 69-49 runaway over 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s.
The eighth-seeded Tar Heels (28-9) made their record 21st Final Four, and next on their list is none other than archrival Duke and its soon-to-be-retiring coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
Next Saturday in New Orleans will mark the first Final Four meeting – first NCAA Tournament meeting, in fact – between the Tobacco Road archrivals whose campuses are separated by 11 miles.
While Coach K’s winding road to retirement has been a beauty to watch this March, nothing has captured more imaginations than the run put on by underdog Saint Peter’s. The entire basketball budget for this scrappy group from Jersey City, New Jersey, is $1.6 million – or around $400,000 less than what Tar Heels first-year coach Hubert Davis, who was sobbing as his players enveloped him after the buzzer, makes in a year.
Two nights earlier, the Peacocks (21-12) beat Purdue to become the first 15 seed to advance to an Elite Eight. They are hardly the first team to see grand plans undone by one of the country’s top-line power programs.
It got ugly early.
After Carolina’s Leaky Black missed a free throw 2 1/2 minutes in, Bacot edged in for the offensive rebound and an easy putback. It gave Carolina a 7-0 lead. In its three tournament wins over Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue, Saint Peter’s had never trailed by more than six.
The Peacocks, whose 10-game win streak ended, moved the ball well and got plenty of good looks over the first 10 minutes. Some shots went halfway down and rimmed out. Others bounced twice on the iron but wouldn’t fall. They trailed 21-7 after missing their first six shots, and 16 of their first 19.
Late in the first half, Daryl Banks III swooped in for what looked like a windmill jam. It got rejected – by the front of the rim. It made the Peacocks 5 for 27 on the night, and when Bacot dunked on the next possession, North Carolina led 36-15.
Fousseyni Drame led Saint Peter’s with 12 points and KC Ndefo had 10.
The weekend before, North Carolina had taken a 25-point lead against Baylor only to see it all melt away before pulling the game out in overtime. The turning point there came when Brady Manek got ejected for throwing an inadvertent elbow. Manek finished this game on the sideline, too – watching garbage time from the bench after scoring 19 points.
It was an emotional evening for Davis, who replaced Roy Williams, the coach who took the Tar Heels to five Final Fours over 18 years. Now the 51-year-old Davis joins the likes of Ray Meyer, Steve Fisher and Denny Crum as rookies to reach the sport’s biggest stage.
Were it not for Saint Peter’s, maybe North Carolina would be the underdog story of this tournament. Way back when, in 1985, another 8 seed shocked the world. It was Rollie Massimino’s 1985 Villanova team.
Then again, these are the Tar Heels. They’ve been playing as well as anyone for more than a month.
When they put a 94-81 beatdown on Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5, it cast a cloud over what was supposed to be a celebration of Coach K’s final home game. On Sunday, they wrecked another of those so-called “perfect” story lines.
But this is more than a consolation prize for college hoops: Next, UNC and Duke meet for the 258th time – and never with the stakes so high.