Jayden Gardner had 17 points and 10 rebounds, and Reece Beekman added 15 points, 5 assists and 5 steals for the second-seeded Cavaliers (24-6), who finally wrestled away control of the game with a 9-0 run in the final two minutes after the Tar Heels had cut a 10-point deficit to 57-55. Much of that production came at the foul line, where the Cavaliers made 9 of 10 as UNC finally ran out of gas.
R.J. Davis scored 24 points to lead the Tar Heels (20-13), who shot just 35.8% to lose for the second time in three meetings with the Cavaliers. UNC also continued a season-long trend of struggling to hit outside shots, making 8 of 27 3-point attempts.
Tar Heels big man Armando Bacot (four points, three rebounds) sat the final 10-plus minutes because of an ankle injury suffered in Wednesday’s second-round win against Boston College.
This never looked anything like the team that made a magical run to last year’s national championship game, then started the year with four starters back to earn a No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press preseason poll. Now the Tar Heels appear headed toward becoming the first AP preseason No. 1 to miss the tournament since its expansion to 64 teams in 1985.
“It’s not a great feeling,” second-year head coach Hubert Davis said. “Not the expectations that we had coming into the year. It was definitely frustrating and disappointing, but one thing I can say about this group is we fight to the end.”
Added Davis: “I’m sad and disappointed for [the players] that we’re in this position. Just very sad for them.”
UNC entered Thursday’s quarterfinal with a 1-8 record in the Quadrant 1 games that top an NCAA tournament résumé, with the lone win coming at home against the Cavaliers on Feb. 25 — and that one hovering on the line to fall into Quadrant 2 territory.
Davis, when asked if he had a “pitch” for why his team should get a tournament bid, said he wasn’t thinking about that.
“Our record is our record,” Davis said. “And I know that, I think regardless of our record, I think we have shown throughout the entire year that we can compete and play and beat anybody in the country. But it’s just, I know we played a really tough out-of-conference schedule, I know that the ACC for whatever reason is undervalued as one of the elite, if not the elite, conferences in college basketball. … But at the end of the day, we had chances and for eight or nine of the 13 losses we had, we were up in the second half. And so, we had our chances.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.