JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The North Carolina Tar Heels had a close game early against the Arkansas Razorbacks. But this time around, the Tar Heels did not have to sweat out a last-second victory, the way they did against Harvard in the previous round of the NCAA tournament. After the teams battled back and forth for the first 30 minutes of the game, North Carolina pulled away behind another terrific second-half performance from Marcus Paige, who scored 20 of his 22 points after halftime in an 87-78 win.
North Carolina advances to its first Sweet 16 since 2012, after early exits to Kansas (2013) and Iowa State (2014) increased the sense of urgency to get past the opening rounds. Coach Roy Williams also hit two important milestones: He became the 15th coach in NCAA Division I history to win his 750th game; and he moved his NCAA tournament record to 65-22, tying the late Dean Smith.
Star of the first weekend: Paige ended up stealing the show against Arkansas. In the second half, he went 4-of-6 from the field, and made all three of his 3-pointers -- a critical turning point in a close game. Paige has now made 91 3-pointers this season to rank second on the school's single-season list. He needs four more to tie Shammond Williams (1997). In two tournament games, Paige has a team-high 34 points and is shooting 50 percent from 3 (5-of-10). But another terrific second-half performance allowed him to live up to his nickname "Second-Half Marcus."
"If I could play just as well in the first half as I do in the second half, I would prefer to do that, but sometimes it happens that way," Paige said. "I just try to help my team win, and in big moments I feel like I get put in a position to succeed by my teammates that do a great job screening for me and looking for me. Sometimes if you have a poor first half, you want to do whatever you can to erase that and make up for it the second, and that's what I've been able to do a couple times."
The big moment in Jacksonville: There was none bigger than late in the game against Harvard, when the Crimson took a 65-63 lead with 1:15 to go. Justin Jackson ended up hitting back-to-back field goals -- a jumper, followed by a dunk off a missed 3-pointer, for the decisive points in the 67-65 win. North Carolina players collectively held their breath when Wesley Saunders got a good look and launched a 3-point attempt with 2 seconds remaining. The shot missed, and North Carolina moved on.
What's next? North Carolina faces No. 1 seed Wisconsin in Los Angeles, and now the question that will linger all week is whether the Tar Heels will have starting forward Kennedy Meeks available. Meeks sprained his left knee when an Arkansas player fell into him while he was attempting a rebound late in the second half. He will undergo more tests when the team arrives back on campus, so the medical watch is on to see whether the Tar Heels will have to play without him.