No. 8 North Carolina knocks out reigning national champ Baylor in thrilling OT finish to reach Sweet 16 – USA TODAY

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North Carolina put on an offensive clinic early to build a 25-point lead before holding off an inspired rally that forced overtime, escaping defending national champion Baylor 93-86 on Saturday in the men’s NCAA Tournament’s second round at Fort Worth.

The Bears, the first No. 1 seed to fall in March Madness, were close to pulling off the biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history by thrillingly storming back in the game’s final six minutes. The No. 8-seeded Tar Heels, a bubble team at the start of the month, advanced to the Sweet 16 in the East Region. 

Despite coughing up the sizable lead and playing completely discombobulated in the final minutes of regulation, North Carolina found a way to gut out the upset in overtime. UNC guard R.J. Davis made a pivotal three-point play with 1:18 remaining in overtime that gave the Tar Heels a six-point edge and proved to be the difference-maker. 

“I’m so proud of these guys,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said afterward. “This is a group that shows toughness, resiliency. One of the things I wanted them to do was have their own testaments, their own March Madness moments.”

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The hot shooting of Davis (30 points off five 3-pointers) propelled UNC early, and big man Brady Manek (26 points) began to drill a barrage of 3-pointers in the second half to help the Heels build their big cushion. Then Manek was ejected from the game with 10 minutes remaining for a flagrant 2 foul when he swung his elbows at Baylor’s Jeremy Sochan. 

Manek’s ejection completely morphed the momentum of the game. The Bears (27-7) weren’t going down without a fight and capitalized on North Carolina being without two of its best players – Manek and Caleb Love (fouled out) – for the final six minutes of regulation.  Baylor went on a 20-4 run to slice a seemingly insurmountable deficit to single digits in the last five minutes, setting up a thrilling comeback that forced overtime.

Guard James Akinjo tied the game at 80 with 15.8 seconds left off a three-point play. Jeremy Sochan’s banked 3-pointer with 31 seconds left sliced the deficit to 80-77. A previous Akinjo three-point play with 1:48 left cut it to 76-73 before UNC All-American big man Armando Bacot converted a pivotal three-point play right after. 

UNC led 42-29 at halftime and had built the 25-point lead midway through the second half before Baylor’s late rally. Baylor had all the momentum heading into overtime but ultimately fell flat, going just 1-for-11 from the floor in the extra frame. The Bears’ Matthew Mayer, a key holdover from last year’s national title team, played with four fouls in pivotal late stretches, hitting big 3-pointers and taking momentous charges before fouling out with 2:49 remaining in overtime.

“Never underestimate the heart of a champion,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said afterward, emotional in praising his team’s fight. “They can put their head on their pillow knowing they gave it their all. The perseverance they showed. …We didn’t win on the court. But we win in life.”

It’s been an impressive NCAA Tournament for the Tar Heels (26-9), who have been getting a wide array of offensive ammunition from different players. They crushed Marquette in the first round and got 23 points from Love. On the NCAA Tournament bubble at the start of the month, North Carolina’s convincing road win over Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game proved to be the turnaround point for this team to peak heading into the postseason.

The Bears, who lost three three players to the NBA draft from last year’s title team that beat Gonzaga in the title game, had to reload in 2021-22 via the transfer portal. They were the weakest of the four No. 1 seeds after winning the Big 12 regular-season title.

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson