- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- In the end, North Carolina’s size overcame Bryce Cotton’s might.
Providence’s inexhaustible point guard scored a career-high 36 points, dished eight assists and played every minute of an East Regional second-round thriller at the AT&T Center.
But the sixth-seeded Tar Heels beat up the No. 11-seeded Friars inside to the very end, collecting two late offensive rebounds to survive and advance with a 79-77 victory Friday night against an individual performance that had Roy Williams in awe when it was all over.
"Bryce Cotton played one of the best games I’ve ever had anybody play against us,” the North Carolina coach said. “He was truly dominating the game.”
Cotton dominated the game, but the Tar Heels dominated the glass to keep a season, while not always a work of art, very much alive.
After finally forcing someone other than Cotton to shoot -- and subsequently miss -- in the final minute thanks to late defensive scheme change, the Tar Heels took possession with the game tied and a chance to win.
Brice Johnson’s jumper misfired, but North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo snagged the rebound off the hardwood and got off a shot to draw a foul with 3.5 seconds remaining. After making the first, McAdoo’s second attempt bounced off the rim, potentially giving the Friars a chance for a March Madness miracle. Instead, McAdoo grabbed his own miss, and drew another foul with 1.7 seconds to go, finally terminating a remarkable postseason run for Cotton, who only had a single Division I offer coming out of his Tucson, Ariz., high school.
“It wasn’t enough,” said Cotton, who came into the tournament averaging 39.9 minutes per game after leading Providence to the Big East tournament title and the automatic NCAA tournament berth. “I definitely left it all out on the floor like the rest of my teammates. But it obviously wasn’t enough because we didn’t come up with the win.”
It was very darn close, though.
The more athletic -- and way more highly recruited -- Tar Heels began to impose their will out of halftime, dominating in the paint. North Carolina, which finished with 21 offensive rebounds, jumped to a 54-45 lead after two more offensive boards led to a Johnson dunk.
But Cotton, who had been tremendous all night, elevated his game to another level that Williams compared to Jackson State’s Lindsey Hunter, who lit up then-Williams’ Kansas Jayhawks for 48 points in 1992.
Cotton sparked a 21-8 Providence run with an assist across the lane for a reverse layup, then a driving, left-handed bank shot over a pair of North Carolina defenders.
He finished off the run by plucking away an errant pass near midcourt and swishing a step-back 3 at the top of the key, giving the Friars a four-point lead while prompting the Providence band to begin chanting “heart and soul.”
“I've seen Bryce perform like that in practice, but when you get to this stage and you're able to do that … they would be considered Superman,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “That kid has been doing that for us all year.”
But North Carolina, which has shown resilience all year from the loss of P.J. Hairston to an 0-3 ACC start, showed even more Friday.
“I talked about how tough we have to be the last four minutes,” Williams said of the discussion in the huddle during the final media timeout. “And I thought our guys were really tough. And again, they made some big-time plays.”
The Tar Heels also switched up their defense by going under screens to keep Cotton from beating them to the rim. And when they had to have some clutch plays, they got them.
In the final 3:01, Marcus Paige nailed a 3-pointer after another offensive rebound, J.P. Tokoto followed that up with a conventional three-point play and Paige later drained another 3 -- with all three shots re-tying the game.
McAdoo then finished the Friars off in fitting form. By grabbing an offensive rebound.
“They hammered us on the glass,” Cooley said. “That’s how they won.”