The North Carolina Tar Heels can count their lucky stars and their lucky bounces. Bryce Cotton declared a one-man war on North Carolina and nearly willed the Providence Friars to victory on Friday night. Despite Cotton’s 36-point performance, the Tar Heels escaped with a 79-77 victory to move in the NCAA tournament.
The Heels did their best to run-and-gun the Friars to death in the first half, a strategy that make sense against Providence. It is not a secret that Ed Cooley has the shortest bench in the NCAA. The Friars only play six players regularly and the bench averages an NCAA-worst 5.4 points per game. Luckily for the Friars, Cotton’s career night kept them within striking distance.
Roy Williams has a cupboard stacked full of All-Americans, as 11 players played for North Carolina, and five scored in double figures. James Michael McAdoo and the frontcourt dominated the boards and neutralized the Friars’ big man Kadeem Batts, who had eight points and one rebound. Providence could not get into their flex offense because North Carolina had fresh legs and better athletes in the paint. Yet, Cotton kept slicing to the hole and hitting improbable shot after improbable shot.
The game came down to McAdoo grabbing an offensive rebound from a missed free throw and Cotton fumbling the ball out of bounds to eliminate the Friars’ chances to call a timeout and set up a play. The relief on Williams’ face was palpable, and the Heels lived to fight another day. Considering the amount of upsets in the tournament so far, every high seed needs rabbits’ feet and four-leaf clovers on hand to get through the second round.
Whether it was luck or the lack of production from the rest of the Providence players, North Carolina has to be encouraged by this victory. They just took down a very strong No. 11 seed, a team that won the Big East conference tournament and finished the season with 23 wins. They withstood the career night from one of the best players in the country, and when it counted, the Heels made the plays to win the game.
An early test such as this could be vital in their next matchup, which will likely be with an athletic Iowa State Cyclones squad. Heels fans have to hope that Cotton’s performance is not repeated in later rounds, as their luck could run out.