UNC tried to lose this game. It really did.
There were the open Anthony Lawrence 3’s, the Chris Lykes step-backs and the all-too-familiar turnovers.
Carolina (19-4, 9-1 ACC) tried its best to drop another Smith Center clunker against Miami (10-13, 2-9 ACC), and it nearly succeeded.
The only thing was, Coby White wouldn’t let them.
The freshman wouldn’t let the Tar Heels get off to a slow start when he picked the pocket of D.J. Vasiljevic and dunked down the first points of the game.
When Lawrence made a 3-pointer to give the Canes a 6-point lead with 5:37 left, White wouldn’t let UNC slip away by knocking down a deep shot of his own on the next possession.
When Miami’s Zack Johnson made a 3 with 48 seconds left to give the Canes a 4-point advantage, Carolina’s point guard wouldn’t let the Tar Heels lose their cool, and promptly hit a 3 on the other end.
As badly as UNC wanted, White wouldn’t let the ACC leaders lose.
By the time the Goldsboro, N.C., native made two free throws with 1:15 left in overtime to give UNC a 5-point lead that proved to be insurmountable, White had 33 points – tied for his career best.
With the 88-85 OT win, Carolina, winners of seven straight, had its best ACC start under Roy Williams.
And it had White to thank.
“I know what Coby can do,” fellow freshman Nassir Little said. “It wasn’t super surprising to me.”
These types of performances from White are becoming less and less surprising to Tar Heel fans as well, as the freshman went 7-10 from deep and added 6 assists in his latest gem.
“Coby hit every shot we needed him to hit,” Kenny Williams said. “He kind of kept us in the game. He’s a big time player, so he’s gonna come through when we need him to.”
White was the story, but Carolina needed its trio of seniors in crunch time as well in a barn burner that was never supposed to be close.
Senior Luke Maye, who may have made a big shot late in a game before, tied the game at 77 with 10 seconds left in regulation with a screen-and-pop 3 that Williams drew up during a timeout.
At that point, memories of last season’s senior night – when Miami’s Ja’Quan Newton hit a game-winning 3 at the buzzer seconds after a 3 from Joel Berry tied the game – came flooding back.
So the Smith Center crowd held its collective breath as Lykes and Miami tried again to knock off the Heels – and exhaled when the 3-point attempt clanked off the rim and the buzzer sounded.
“I had a little bit of déjà vu when that last 3 went up in regulation,” Cameron Johnson said. “We really didn’t want a guy like him to have the ball in his hands.”
Johnson and Williams, the other two seniors, closed out the game with big shots of their own.
Williams, who hadn’t made a 3 all game, knocked down a big one to break a 79-79 tie with 2:11 left in overtime and give Carolina a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Then Johnson sunk two free throws with 11 seconds left to give UNC an 88-85 lead.
Lykes couldn’t get a shot off at the other end, and Carolina had survived and could relax knowing it would be in a tie for first in the ACC with No. 3 Virginia coming to Chapel Hill Monday.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have a home game against No. 2 Duke in an ACC showdown tonight that has major conference and national implications.
So what is Johnson cheering for in that game?