CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Back in the NCAA tournament spotlight after a one-year absence, North Carolina has returned to a more familiar spot: the round of 16.
It sure wasn't easy.
Tyler Zeller scored 23 points, Harrison Barnes added 22 and North Carolina survived a frantic finish to beat Washington 86-83 on Sunday in the East regional and advance to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for a record 24th time.
Rallying from deficits of 11 points in the first half and five in the second, the second-seeded Tar Heels (28-7) went ahead for good on Barnes' 3-pointer with 4:06 left. But they needed two free throws from Dexter Strickland and a defensive stop in the closing seconds to reach the regional semifinals.
Next, UNC will play No. 11 seed Marquette on Friday in Newark, N.J.
Terrence Ross scored 19 points and Matthew Bryan-Amaning added 14 for the seventh-seeded Huskies (24-11), who overcame a hostile crowd to nearly pull the upset in a fast-paced game full of entertaining plays and mental miscues down the stretch.
Washington got within 84-83 on Ross' 3-pointer with 17.3 seconds left, and North Carolina's Kendall Marshall missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Venoy Overton then missed a runner in the lane, but the ball bounced off North Carolina and out of bounds with 7.4 seconds left.
Following the timeout, 6-foot-10 John Henson knocked away the inbounds pass under the basket and the ball landed in Strickland's hands.
Strickland hit two free throws with 5.4 seconds left, and Overton then launched a halfcourt shot with about 3 seconds remaining that fell well short. Instead of letting it go harmlessly out of bounds, though, Henson touched the ball and gave the Huskies yet another chance.
Replays with the official game clock superimposed on the screen showed there should have been 1.1 or 1.2 seconds to go, giving Washington more time for a final shot. Coach Lorenzo Romar said after the game that his staff asked the referees to review how much time should have been left, but the officials stuck with half a second.
The Huskies inbounded the ball to Thomas, who unloaded a shot from the corner. Henson inexplicably touched the ball just before it would have hit the rim and the Washington bench erupted for a goaltending call — not that it would have mattered.
It turned out that Thomas had his foot on the 3-point line.
With Strickland in Thomas' jersey all game, the dynamic point guard struggled from the field and finished with 12 points and eight assists
Ross, coming in averaging 7.7 points, picked up the slack by hitting 7 of 10 shots.
Two years removed from a national championship, North Carolina won its 25th straight NCAA tournament game in its home state a year after being relegated to the NIT.
Barnes, who has made a habit of hitting big shots lately, drilled a 3-pointer to put North Carolina ahead for good, 78-76. He later had a key steal that led to goaltend at the other end to give the Tar Heels their largest lead, 84-78, with under 2 minutes left.
Washington, which came in with as many NCAA tournament wins (18) as North Carolina has Final Four appearances, nearly pulled off a dramatic comeback despite playing 2,800 miles from home.
Romar altered his lineup to better combat North Carolina's size. Lone 7-footer Aziz N'Diaye started alongside 6-9 Bryan-Amaning, and 6-6 Scott Suggs got the nod in the backcourt.
It immediately paid off, with N'Diaye collecting 11 rebounds despite foul trouble and clogging the middle, while the Huskies' burst of 12 points on four possessions in the first half stunned the crowd.
Ross hit two 3-pointers, Darnell Gant added another and Overton had a three-point play in a 12-0 spurt to put Washington ahead 26-15. It was eerily similar to North Carolina's poor starts a week earlier at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
But soon the Tar Heels got their high-octane offense going.
Harrison and Zeller combined for 26 first-half points, with Zeller's two free throws in the closing seconds cutting Washington's lead to 45-44 in a half that saw Washington commit 11 fouls and North Carolina two.
Things evened out in the second half and North Carolina pulled out its eighth straight NCAA tournament victory.