NEW ORLEANS – One of North Carolina first-year head coach Hubert Davis’ favorite things to say is “Bejeebies.”
And considering where the Tar Heels were early in the season and as recently as mid-February, it is Bejeebies Crazy that they made it this far.
If No. 8 seed North Carolina (28-9) beats No. 2 seed Duke (32-6) Saturday night (8:49 p.m. eastern, TBS) at the Final Four in the Superdome, it will make history. The Tar Heels would be playing for the national championship Monday as the worst seed in their history out of 12 championship game appearances, going back to 1946.
“Nobody really thought we’d get to this point,” North Carolina senior 6-foot-8 forward Leaky Black of Concord, N.C. said Friday afternoon. “So just proving a lot of people wrong.”
On February 16, North Carolina lost 76-67 at home to Pittsburgh to fall to 18-8 and 10-5, but the worst part was what the quality of opponent did to the Tar Heels’ NCAA Tournament chances. Pittsburgh’s win improved it to 11-16 and 6-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Pitt would lose its next five games to finish 11-21 and 6-14 with four double-digit losses: by 30, 24, 21 and 20.
Bejeebies Bubble, in other words. At least North Carolina stayed within double digits of Pitt. It couldn’t do that in six previous losses, as it fell by 29 to Kentucky on Dec. 18 at a neutral site, by 28 at Miami on Jan. 18, by 22 at Wake Forest on Jan. 22, by 17 to Tennessee on Nov. 21 at a neutral site and by 10 at Duke on Feb. 5.
“We just drew the line and said we have to stop being selfish,” 6-10 junior center Armando Bacot of Richmond, Virginia said. “Offensively, we were playing hero ball, just not playing together.”
North Carolina won six straight after the Pitt loss, including a monumental 94-81 win at No. 4 Duke on Mike Krzyzewski Day, as it was his last home game with his retirement announcement over the summer.
“We finally got that Quad 1 win, a big time win versus Duke,” said Bacot, who scored 23 points with seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks. “Especially being at Duke, I think it made everyone believe in us. But for us, we always had that belief. We may not have shown it, but we always believed that we were good.”
North Carolina’s only loss since Pitt was 72-59 in the ACC Tournament to Virginia Tech. In the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels have defeated No. 9 seed Marquette 95-63, No. 1 seed and defending national champion Baylor 93-86 in overtime, No. 4 seed UCLA 73-66 and No. 15 seed Cinderella Saint Peter’s 69-49.
North Carolina has now become Cinderella as the worst seed in the Final Four with the next closest being 2 seeds Duke and Villanova (30-7), which plays No. 1 seed Kansas (32-6) in the opener Saturday (6:09 p.m., TBS).
“Honestly, I don’t think we’re a Cinderella team,” North Carolina 6-8 guard Puff Johnson of Moon Township, Pennsylvania said. “I knew from the beginning we could do this. We knew we were capable of making it this far. So in our eyes, I don’t feel like we’re a Cinderella team.”
And Davis did put a picture of the Superdome in his team’s locker room before the first practice last fall.
“I didn’t want them to dwell on that, but I wanted them to see where we’re going and what we’re fighting for,” Davis said Thursday. “I don’t know what Cinderella team means, so, no, I don’t prescribe to that. North Carolina’s been to more Final Fours than any program ever.”
Bejeebies, he’s right. The Tar Heels are in Final Four No. 21 for first place. North Carolina has won six national championships. The late coach Dean Smith won his first and the Tar Heels’ second national title 40 years ago this week in the same Superdome as a No. 1 seed – 63-62 over No. 1 seed Georgetown on a jumper from 16 feet by freshman guard Michael Jordan with 15 seconds to go.
Sophomore guard Caleb Love of St. Louis could be in the Jordan role for North Carolina because it could be the shoes. He changed from black Jordan 11 shoes to Carolina blue Jordan 11 shoes at halftime of the UCLA game when he had just three points on 1-of-7 shooting with the Tar Heels down 31-28.
Love scored 27 in the second half for the win.
“I don’t think it was the shoes,” said Davis, who was a player on North Carolina’s 1991 Final Four team and an assistant when the Tar Heels won their last national title in 2017 and third under coach Roy Williams.
It might have been the Bejeebies.
“At first, I thought it was kind of goofy, hearing Bejeebies for the first time,” Black said. “It was kind of weird. But we pretty much got the message.”
Now, it’s Duke again in the first-ever Duke-North Carolina game in the NCAA Tournament after each were in the same NCAA Tournament 36 times previously. It will also be the first Final Four game against two teams from the same conference and state.
“Does it make a difference it’s Duke? At the end, we’re in the Final Four,” Black said. “We came here for one thing. That’s to bring something home. No matter who we’re playing, that’s our goal.”