SAN ANTONIO (AP) — North Carolina isn’t going home early like Duke. But only just barely.
James Michael McAdoo sank two free throws in the final 3.5 seconds after the No. 6 seed Tar Heels had trailed just a minute earlier, and North Carolina hung on to beat pesky 11th-seeded Providence 79-77 Friday night.
Had North Carolina (24-9) lost, it would’ve been the first time since 1979 the Tar Heels and rival Blue Devils lost on the same day of the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils fell earlier to 14th-seeded Mercer, and the Friars nearly handed North Carolina a similar stunner.
“We feel very fortunate, to say the least,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
North Carolina on Sunday will play No. 3 seed Iowa State, which clobbered North Carolina Central but lost starting forward Georges Niang for the remainder of the tournament with a broken foot.
Providence’s Bryce Cotton scored a career-high 36 points and made one dazzling shot after another in the Friars’ first tournament appearance since 2004. But a breathtaking performance ended in agony: Cotton fumbled a long rebound in the final moments after a McAdoo free throw miss, robbing the Friars of a chance for a last-second miracle.
“It wasn’t enough, you know?” Cotton said. “I definitely left it all out on the floor just like the rest of my teammates, but obviously, it wasn’t enough because we didn’t come up with the win.”
Providence coach Ed Cooley was more forgiving.
“I’ve seen Bryce perform like that in practice, but when you get to this stage and you’re able to do that –I’ve been saying the whole year I think Bryce is one of the top guards in all of America,” Cooley said. “It’s just for whatever reason he didn’t get the national love. I think today if there is somebody in this national tournament that does that, they would be considered Superman.”
Marcus Paige led North Carolina with 19 points.
“It was a fun game — because we won,” said Paige, laughing.
North Carolina tipped off loathe to wind up as another NCAA blue blood sent packing by a smaller school reveling in a rare tournament berth.
The Friars, who haven’t won in the tournament since 1997, squeezed everything out of their six-man rotation to give talent-rich North Carolina all it could handle. Each time the Tar Heels flexed their unmatchable athleticism — forward J.P. Tokoto’s spinning dunk after swiping a midcourt pass got everyone gasping — Providence answered.
Cotton made sure of it.
Saving the performance of his career for his final game, Cotton was 13 of 23 from the floor and had eight assists. But there was nothing on his face but anguish after corralling a missed McAdoo free throw with less than 2 seconds left, only to bumble the ball off his knee and out of bounds.
McAdoo finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and Brice Johnson also scored 16 for the Tar Heels.
“I knew I just had to go up there and focus on the rim and just continue to do the routine I’ve been doing all year,” McAdoo said of his winning foul shots.
Ladontae Henton was Cotton’s sidekick, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Tyler Harris added 13 for the Friars (23-12), who were a bubble team before winning the Big East tournament.
Providence trailed 39-36 at halftime, and with 10 minutes left, a nifty one-handed turnaround by Cotton pulled the Friars within a basket. The senior never came out for a breather, playing every possible minute for the 16th time in 19 games.
Two possessions later, Providence’s ironman struck again — this time to put the Friars up 60-58. Cotton — the smallest guy on the floor at 6-1 — made a 3-pointer to push Providence’s lead and then roared at midcourt, while North Carolina trudged back to the bench looking baffled.
But Paige brought the Tar Heels back, hitting a 3-pointer with 1:06 left to tie the game at 77.
Two North Carolina teams have lost in the Final Four in San Antonio. This time, the AT&T Center is the starting point for a North Carolina team that has been inconsistent.
Star guard P.J. Hairston never played because of NCAA violations, and Leslie McDonald was suspended for nine games. And an academic fraud scandal has continued to embarrass the athletic department.
Coach Roy Williams said it had been “a tough time around Chapel Hill.”
Not pulling this one out would’ve made it tougher: North Carolina hasn’t lost a tournament opener since 1999.
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.