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The University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team spent part of December being crushed by Kentucky. January brought humiliations at Miami and Wake Forest. February included being embarrassed on its home court by Duke and Pittsburgh and requiring overtime to beat a woeful Syracuse.
Then came March. The Tar Heels went over to Duke and spoiled Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5. Then, in overtime on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas, they upset Baylor, the No. 1 seed in the East region and the reigning national champion, to advance to the round of 16 in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Each of those signature victories are of the stripe that can redeem any misbegotten season. But both? As former North Carolina Coach Roy Williams might say — and a fitting moment came as he sat in the Fort Worth stands — “daggum.”
The eighth-seeded Tar Heels will meet either St. Mary’s or U.C.L.A. on Friday in Philadelphia.
Their 93-86 downing of Baylor, the first No. 1 seed to lose in this year’s tournament, on Saturday was a late-blooming work of suspense.
U.N.C. seized the lead early and held it without even a tie until there were 15.8 seconds remaining.
Dive Deeper Into the N.C.A.A. Tournaments
But Baylor somehow managed to erase what had, to that point, appeared to be a dominant performance by the Tar Heels.
In the first half — after which the Tar Heels led by 13 — U.N.C. made half of its shots from the field, while Baylor sank 40 percent and struggled mightily behind the arc. They were nearly even in total rebounds, with U.N.C. having the smallest of edges. But Baylor’s turnovers fueled Carolina’s rise and accounted for 15 of the Tar Heels’ 42 points before the intermission.
So did R.J. Davis, a sophomore from White Plains, N.Y., who scored 30 points to lead U.N.C.
Davis and his teammates started to rise after the 9-point loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16 and have lost only once since, to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Krzyzewski marveled over them this month, once his team was done in by players like Armando Bacot, a 6-foot-10 junior who collects rebounds with the zeal of an Internal Revenue Service agent, and Brady Manek, who transferred from Oklahoma and came into Saturday’s game leading North Carolina in 3-pointers.
“We knew the potential of this team coming into this season, and we just wanted to turn it around,” Davis observed on Friday. “We knew after the loss to Pitt, that wasn’t the way we wanted to play. So from that point on, I think we just turned it around and started to compete. And everyone bought into their roles and that’s kind of what we’ve been buying into.”
Baylor avoided the overlapping indignities of a long trip home after a miserable loss, and, thanks to a victory over Norfolk State on Thursday, the ignominy of being the earliest exiting departing champion in tournament history, but very little else went exactly as it hoped.
Baylor could not manage a basket for a stretch of close to four minutes in the second half. U.N.C. took that interlude and scored 13, building a lead of 24.
Much of that came from Manek, whose 9 points in the first half came to feel small by the end of the second, when he had 17. He very likely would have finished with more than 26 points, but he was ejected with just more than 10 minutes to play after being called for a flagrant foul.
His dismissal proved the catalyst for the kind of Baylor onslaught that, less than two hours earlier, would have seemed like a surefire route to Philadelphia.
Baylor narrowed the gap with one shot after another, with one opportunity seized after another.
The team that had once trailed by 25, back when Manek committed his foul, tied the game at 80 with less than 16 seconds left.
Neither squad found the basket again in regulation, forcing overtime.
Dontrez Styles, a freshman, hit an early 3-pointer to let U.N.C. regain control. Bacot made a free throw.
Then Baylor’s Matthew Mayer converted two from the line. A layup by Jeremy Sochan knotted the game again.
Mayer’s final foul sent Bacot back to the line; he made both tries. James Akinjo made a free throw of his own for Baylor, moving the game’s margin back to 1.
A layup by Leaky Black added to North Carolina’s lead. Davis made a layup, too, and then the free throw he earned during his attempt.
There were just 78 seconds to play in overtime, and North Carolina was up by 6.
Time ebbed, and the score did not change much, with Baylor, which earned a share of the Big 12 Conference’s regular-season title, squandering chances that could have drawn them closer to salvaging an afternoon and a season.
Instead, North Carolina, a team to maybe forget not long ago, would be the program to play on in March.