NEW YORK — The play that allowed North Carolina to defeat No. 23 Ohio State 89-84 could become the catalyst that turns around the Tar Heels’ skittish season.
Here’s the twist: It was a play UNC players had never run before. Never practiced before. Never seen before.
Pete Nance’s fallaway 2-pointer as time expired to send UNC to overtime against the Buckeyes on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden was an improv call in the huddle by Carolina assistant Jeff Lebo, who scribbled out a design on a whim after remembering watching another team find itself in a similar situation earlier this year.
“Lebo said he saw it like on TV or something like that,” Tar Heels center Armando Bacot, who had a season-high 28 points, told CBS Sports.
Down 79-77 with 1.2 seconds left, Lebo took the whiteboard from Tar Heels assistant Brad Frederick and chickenscratched a scheme that was similar to something he watched Penn State pull off earlier this season in a game against Clemson.
“It was kind of a version of that, but they needed a 3, so they kind of go through and try to flare, come behind and hit it,” Lebo told CBS Sports. “We didn’t have time for that.”
Like many classics, the diagram was simple in outline but deceptive in nature. UNC’s two leading scorers, Bacot and Caleb Love, would be decoys. The most dangerous man on the floor was hiding in plain sight: 6-foot-11 Pete Nance. And he was modestly setting up camp on the opposite side of the inbounder, Leaky Black.
Ohio State had no reason to think the ball was going to him; Nance had six points and was 3-of-8 shooting before taking perhaps the biggest shot of his career. In fact, UNC players didn’t have reason to believe either. Bacot and Black did not initially like the call, they told CBS Sports.
“I’m like, yeah, no chance,” Bacot said. “I didn’t know what was gonna happen, honestly, because it was kind of like a middle school-style play.”
“Honestly, I’m not gonna lie, I was like … OK?” Black said. “Me and Mondo kind of walked out the huddle. He’s like, ‘Bro, if that doesn’t work, just come get it, like, just pitch it.'”
Nance sauntered to his spot to discover a defender four inches shorter than him at his side, Ohio State’s Brice Sensabaugh. The 6-6 freshman was seconds removed from the biggest shot of his green college career — he’d just sunk a 12-footer over Black to give OSU the lead with 2.0 seconds remaining. He had no idea what was coming.
And neither did Ohio State.
Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann opted not to put a defender on Black, a decision he told CBS Sports afterwards he often goes to because it’s proven to be a winning tactic for his teams over the years. As Black took the ball, the other four Tar Heels, on blind faith, did what they were told.
RJ Davis was in the corner. Decoy.
Bacot flared as a decoy for Love, inducing Ohio State into a double-decoy.
Nance: Stand on the opposite wing, look bored.
“I was kind of supposed to act like I was out of the game,” Nance said. “Like I wasn’t a part of it. So I was kind of just like standing there. But I was looking at Leaky just making sure that, you know, he knew what was going on. So I kind of bumped into my guy and he made a perfect pass. Being able to have that non-verbal communication was super important part of the play.”
Nance coyly flicked a look at Black.
“Like a glance,” Black said. “That’s when I knew. I was kind of hesitant.”
In that instant, Black abandoned the bailout with Bacot and put trust in his coaching staff. The former high school quarterback — who loves to remind people he’s a former high school quarterback — knew just how much touch to put on the ball. Just a little back-of-the-end-zone fade, right?
“I knew Leaky was going to make a great pass,” Nance said.
“Hats off to him. I really didn’t see the vision,” Bacot said of Lebo’s play.
Nance unfurled the shot naturally, but slowly, almost to the point where he didn’t get it off his hands in time. But he did — by .1 second.
“I felt like the ball was in the air for the longest time,” Black said.
Nance cashed it, much of the Garden burst into euphoria and Carolina completed a 14-point comeback that instantly went down as the biggest moment of this rickety Tar Heels season so far.
Turns out, the play wasn’t a Penn State original — it was an old Brad Stevens reliable, Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry texted to CBS Sports.
“Brad used to run it in Boston, that’s where I got it,” Shrewsberry texted. Shrewsberry was previously on staff with the Boston Celtics when Stevens was coach. Here’s how Penn State used it vs. Clemson in November. Notice the flare.
As for Nance, that fallaway is his go-to. He’s taken it hundreds of times in games and thousands upon thousands of times in practices and on his own over the years. It didn’t matter who was guarding him. Nobody would be tall enough to block the shot.
“If I could pick two or three shots, if I had to save my life, one would probably be that fadeaway,” Nance said. “Been working on it kind of all my life.”
In the overtime session UNC, which had overwhelming fan support vs. Ohio State’s backers in the building, held off Ohio State 10-5 to win 89-84. With this, UNC got its first nonconference win over a high-major opponent and its first victory over a projected NCAA Tournament team. No group has been more scrutinized than the former preseason No. 1. And this win won’t ensure that Carolina avoids letdowns going forward.
But judging by the locker room vibe afterward, it was a cathartic experience Saturday afternoon in Manhattan.
“We definitely needed it,” Bacot said of the win. “It was a testament to the coaches.”
Lebo deferred credit afterwards.
“Coach (Davis) was the one who got us to a great play call,” Lebo told CBS Sports. “Coach Davis did a great job getting the timeout there and getting into the next play.”
Here’s in effect what the play looked like and the direction of the guys on the floor.
The crucial play before THE play was Davis’ design to get the ball to halfcourt on a pass from Black to Davis with only .8 seconds taken off the clock. That put Black in position to parabola the ball to Nance. If that isn’t executed to perfection, there is no game-saving attempt.
An incredible atmosphere, and Bacot said it was as memorable and satisfying in the moment as any he’s been involved in.
“It was a big time game,” Bacot said. “We were talking about it before y’all got in here. That was probably the best game we all ever played in. It was just so electric and then for it to be in the Garden with so many fans. There’s like a huge North Carolina [presence]. It was crazy.”
For Black, some quick personal redemption. The reason UNC was in that position was because Sensabaugh hit a soft jumper over him with 2.0 seconds remaining.
“I just felt like I let everyone down,” Black told CBS Sports. “When he got it … I had tears in my eyes because I just felt like I let the team down the play before. … I can’t really put it into words but it does show you how tough this team is . You know, we’ve been through so much adversity in just the fight that we you know, these guys have is, you couldn’t ask for more. From anyone else. I don’t really know what to say about it. But it was beautiful.”
The game was Carolina’s first at Madison Square Garden since 2010. For Davis, who of course knows this building so well after playing as a New York Knick after being drafted in 1992, he’s determined to get the Tar Heels back here as often as possible. Maybe it won’t even have to be as long as he thinks. The 2023 NCAA Tournament will have a regional in this building in three months. And thanks to this win, and how Carolina got it, hopes can once again bubble up that the Tar Heels will be dancing in March.
If that happens, and if this team is back in the mix near the top of the sport, Saturday’s dramatic comeback will be the point where everything changed. On a play no one saw coming.