Providence's Bryce Cotton became the breakout star of this NCAA tournament in his first and last game.
Showing the rest of the country what Big East foes have long known, Cotton saved the most dazzling game of his career for the biggest stage, scoring 36 points and pushing No. 6 seed North Carolina to the brink before the 11th-seeeded Friars fell 79-77 on Friday night.
So close to another big upset this tournament. So close to Providence's first win at the Big Dance in 17 years.
"It wasn't enough, you know?" Cotton said. "I definitely left it all out on the floor just like the rest of my teammates, but obviously, it wasn't enough because we didn't come up with the win."
His breathtaking performance ended in agony: Cotton fumbled a long rebound in the final moments after James Michael McAdoo's free throw miss, robbing the Friars of a chance for a last-second miracle.
McAdoo sank two free throws in the final 3.5 seconds to seal the win after the Tar Heels had trailed a minute earlier.
Had North Carolina (24-9) lost, it would've been the first time since 1979 the Tar Heels and rival Blue Devils lost on the same day of the NCAA tournament.
Duke fell earlier to 14th-seeded Mercer, and the Friars nearly handed North Carolina a similar stunner.
"We feel very fortunate, to say the least," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
Providence coach Ed Cooley wished it hadn't taken this long for the nation to catch a glimpse of his star guard.
"I've seen Bryce perform like that in practice, but when you get to this stage and you're able to do that — I've been saying the whole year I think Bryce is one of the top guards in all of America," Cooley said. "It's just for whatever reason he didn't get the national love. I think today if there is somebody in this national tournament that does that, they would be considered Superman."
Marcus Paige led North Carolina with 19 points.
"It was a fun game — because we won," said Paige, laughing.
The Friars, who haven't won in the tournament since 1997, squeezed everything out of their six-man rotation to give North Carolina all it could handle. Each time the Tar Heels flexed their athleticism — forward J.P. Tokoto's spinning dunk after swiping a midcourt pass got everyone gasping — Providence answered.
Cotton made sure of it.
He was 13 of 23 from the floor and had eight assists in the final game of his career. But there was nothing on his face but anguish after corralling a missed McAdoo free throw with less than 2 seconds left, only to bumble the ball off his knee and out of bounds.
McAdoo finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and Brice Johnson also scored 16 for the Tar Heels.
"I knew I just had to go up there and focus on the rim and just continue to do the routine I've been doing all year," McAdoo said of his winning foul shots. "As you can see, I was able to do it."
Ladontae Henton was Cotton's sidekick, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Tyler Harris added 13 for the Friars (23-12), who were a bubble team before winning the Big East tournament.
Providence trailed just 39-36 at halftime, and with 10 minutes left, a nifty one-handed turnaround by Cotton pulled the Friars within a basket. The senior never came out for a breather, playing every possible minute for the 16th time in 19 games.
Two possessions later, Providence's ironman struck again — this time to put the Friars up 60-58, their first lead since halftime.
Cotton — the smallest guy on the floor at 6-foot-1 — made a 3-pointer to push Providence's lead and then roared at midcourt, while North Carolina trudged back to the bench looking baffled.
But Paige brought the Tar Heels back, hitting a 3-pointer with 1:06 left to tie the game at 77.
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