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North Carolina Survived Against Arkansas, But Not Without Controversy Along the Way

The blown calls might not have affected the final outcome, but they will leave Razorbacks fans wondering what might’ve been

(AP)
(AP)

Despite having a win probability of nearly 80 percent within the final three minutes of their second-round matchup against North Carolina, Arkansas found themselves unable to pull off the upset, losing 72–65. But it wasn’t for lack of trying: The Razorbacks had chances late in the game to claw back for the win, and you could argue that a few of their opportunities were robbed from them.

The Tar Heels, a no. 1 seed that made it out alive, will advance to another Sweet 16 under Roy Williams, but not without a fair deal of controversy.

Arkansas was down just a point, 66–65. With 1:18 remaining and a second on the shot clock, guard Daryl Macon launched a 3-point attempt from the left side. The ball never made it close to the rim, it was blocked by senior forward Kennedy Meeks. Originally ruling UNC’s ball, the referees took a lengthy review to make sure their call — an air ball, out of bounds from Macon — was correct. But the review showed a clean block by Meeks, and if overturned, would’ve left a second on the shot clock for Arkansas. Instead of giving Arkansas the possession, the result stayed North Carolina’s ball.

From there, things got murkier.

UNC’s Joel Berry took the inbound down the court, and Arkansas, still down one, was close to advancing. The clock ticked to under a minute, and Berry drove in. Adrio Bailey switched off Isaiah Hicks to Berry and locked in the position to take a charge. Berry pushed through, and what looked to be an offensive foul — with Bailey knocked down despite being set in his position — instead remained a no-call. With the freshman forward still on the ground, Meeks swooped in for the offensive rebound and putback. It was the defining play of the game, for better or worse, and the basket that would seal North Carolina’s victory. “We were in the most difficult fight we’ve had all year long,” Williams told CBS’s Lewis Johnson after the game. “We got really lucky.”

It’s a shame that the officiating has taken the spotlight in the Tar Heels win, because for most of the second half, fans were gifted some thrilling basketball. The seven-point spread doesn’t reflect the bonkers, fast-paced comeback that Arkansas — once down 17 — hunted down, one swipe and steal at a time. The Razorbacks first led after a Dustin Thomas jumper with 13 minutes to go in the final half; they held on throughout, continuing with the advantage until just two minutes remained. That’s where everything became a little funky for the ’Backs, the refs, and Roy William’s suit — wait, sorry, Roy’s suit stayed funky the whole time.

Pinning Arkansas’ loss on a few questionable calls isn’t exactly fair. The Razorbacks would have other opportunities to get back into the game. Moses Kingsley went to the line with the chance to bring it within one after Meeks’s putback, but the big man missed both. In fact, the Razorbacks’ final three possessions were a missed 3 (taken quickly and out of necessity by Anton Beard), an intentional foul, and a turnover — the very factor that helped Arkansas string together their comeback in the second half. Still, if North Carolina never regained possession after the block, there wouldn’t be a missed charge call. With those missed calls being so close together, so late in the game, and with so much on the line, the ending was a poor fit. Embracing chaos is how Arkansas climbed their way back against the no. 1 seed, but it’s also what opened Pandora’s box and allowed officiating to play a significant role in determining who wins and loses.