JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — North Carolina added one more Sweet 16 to its long postseason resume Saturday night with a 87-78 victory over Arkansas at Veterans Memorial Arena.
The No. 4-seeded Tar Heels, who reached the Sweet 16 for the 26th time since 1975 — the most trips by any NCAA program — got there by eliminating the No. 5 seed Razorbacks, who were making their first appearance since 2008 when they were also sent packing by North Carolina.
But this game was far more competitive than the 108-77 beatdown the Tar Heels delivered Arkansas in the second round in 2008.
Still, it will be the Tar Heels dancing next weekend in Los Angeles, where they will play the winner of Sunday’s matchup between No. 1 seed Wisconsin and No. 8 Oregon.
Carolina guard Marcus Paige led the Tar Heels with 22 points, five rebounds and five steals. Freshman forward Justin Jackson — the hero in Thursday’s second-round victory over Harvard when he scored the final four points — added 16 points and two steals.
Arkansas, which was seeking its 11th trip to the Sweet 16 but first since 1996, got a monster game from guard Michael Qualls, who led all scorers with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
Forward Bobby Portis, the SEC Player of the Year, also posted a double-double with 18 points and 13 rebounds and contributed five steals and four assists.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams earned his 750th career win, moving him into 15th in NCAA history. Williams also tied legendary former Tar Heels coach Dean Smith for the most NCAA Tournament wins at North Carolina with 32.
Forward J.P Tokoto helped North Carolina advance with 13 points, eight assists and five boards. Tar Heels guard Nate Britt scored 10 points — all in the first half.
The game was as back-and-forth as they come.
After trailing 39-36 at intermission, Arkansas stormed out of the gate and tied the score at 47 on a Qualls free throw.
Portis then gave Arkansas its first lead since midway through the first half at 50-49 when he drained a contested 3-pointer with 14:54 remaining. But North Carolina responded quickly, going on a 7-2 run to regain the lead 57-52 after an and-one by Tokoto.
The Razorbacks were able to stop the bleeding when they forced the Tar Heels into their seventh team foul with 12:18 left in the game, putting Carolina in the bonus. Razorbacks guard Jabril Durham drained both free throws, then two possessions later made a 3-pointer as Arkansas regained the lead at 59-58 with just under 11 minutes left.
No one expected the Tar Heels to go away and they didn’t.
North Carolina went on a 13-3 spurt and jumped back ahead 71-61 with just over seven minutes remaining. Paige scored eight points, including a running one-hander over the outstretched hands of two Arkansas defender and a 3-pointer that gave North Carolina its biggest lead of the game.
After Durham’s 3-pointer with 11:01 left, Arkansas didn’t hit a field goal or almost six minutes during North Carolina’s run, notching only four free throws during that stretch. The Razorbacks didn’t break the drought until 5:02 when guard Anthlon Bell hit a trey to cut the margin to 75-66.
But Arkansas scored only four more field goals after that and North Carolina started to pull away.
NOTES: North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Arkansas coach Mike Anderson have a long history together. Both were assistants under former Tar Heels coach Dean Smith and former Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson at the same time. … Williams came into the game 2-0 in his career against the Razorbacks and Arkansas was 2-0 in NCAA Tournament games played in Florida. … The last four meetings between North Carolina and Arkansas came in the NCAA Tournament. … North Carolina holds NCAA records for most Sweet 16 and Final Four appearances.