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Harvard rallies, but can't pull off another NCAA shocker, falls to North Carolina 67-65

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JACKSONVILLE, Florida — Maybe it's time to stop being surprised that Harvard is a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.

The Crimson (22-8) battled back from a 16-point second-half deficit to give fourth-seeded North Carolina all it could handle in a West Regional matchup at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on Monday night.

Harvard led briefly before the Tar Heels (25-11) got two late baskets from Justin Jackson for a 67-65 victory.

Wesley Saunders scored 26 and Siyani Chambers had 13 for the Ivy League champions, who were trying to win their opening game of the tourney for the third straight year.

"Can't say enough about the effort that our kids put forth, the battle to get back in it," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said.

"I thought we played with great poise," Amaker said. "Wesley Saunders and Siyani, these guys are the two main guys that do everything for our ballclub, carried us to put us in a position to have a chance. ... I thought we did exactly what we tried to do from a game plan standpoint, but they're certainly talented and worthy of victory."

North Carolina coach Roy Williams told his team he felt fortunate to win.

"It's the luckiest I've ever felt after a basketball game in my entire life," Williams said after Justin Jackson hit a tying jumper in the final minute, and then had a fast-break dunk to put the Tar Heels ahead for good. "In saying that, I'm thrilled that we're still here and we're still playing."

Chambers' four-point play put 13th-seeded Harvard ahead 65-63 with 1:15 remaining. It was the only lead of the game for the Crimson.

Jackson finished with 14 points and Marcus Paige had 10 for North Carolina.

"Coach just told us to keep fighting, eventually our shots would go down," Chambers said. "We had some good looks in the first half, they didn't go down. Coach just really emphasized at halftime to keep getting stops and having offensive possessions."

Chambers misfired on a pair of 3-pointers in the closing seconds, and the Crimson's final chance for victory — Saunders' shot from beyond the arc — bounced off the back of the rim after North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks was unable to put the game out of reach from the foul line.

The Crimson were hoping to get the ball to Corbin Miller, but Amaker was more than fine with Saunders trying to win it.

"We wanted it in Wesley's hands. ... We were trying to see if we could steal something from Corbin, but Wesley is our playmaker," Amaker said.

"I thought he was as good as anybody that played in our game here this evening," Amaker said. "So if he was going to get a three, get a drive, get a two, we were going to live with his decision."

North Carolina lost six of 10 down the stretch, but has played considerably better in the postseason, beginning with three wins on the way to the championship game of the ACC Tournament, where the Tar Heels lost to Notre Dame.

PHOTO: Harvard guard Wesley Saunders, left, and North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks battle for the ball during the second half of an NCAA tournament second round college basketball game Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla.  (AP Photo/Rick Wilson)
Harvard guard Wesley Saunders, left, and North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks battle for the ball during the second half of an NCAA tournament second round college basketball game Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Rick Wilson)

Isiah Hicks played some key minutes in the first half with the Tar Heels, with the reserve making all four of his shots and grabbing three rebounds in the first 20 minutes. His three-point play restored a double-digit lead after Harvard trimmed what was once a 14-point deficit to 26-23.

North Carolina led 36-25 at halftime, and Jackson made a 3-pointer coming out of the break. It looked as if the Tar Heels might run away when they built a 16-point lead with under 17 minutes to go.

But the Crimson kept their poise and clawed back into the game.

Two free throws from Steve Moundou-Missi cut North Carolina's lead to one with 3:39 left. Paige gave the Tar Heels some breathing room with a 3-pointer, but Harvard refused to crack.

Saunders hit a jumper and, with the clock winding down and Harvard fans urging Chambers to stop dribbling and shoot, the junior guard made a 3 and was fouled.

Jackson answered on the other end with his jumper, and then scored the go-ahead basket with 22 seconds remaining after North Carolina rebounded Chambers' miss.

Disappointing finish, but Saunders — who's played his final game — was thankful for the opportunity.

"This obviously isn't the finish that I wanted to have, but we knew it was going to end eventually, so it's just been great," the senior from Los Angeles, California said. "It's been a great four years, and I'm just so thankful that I've been able to be a part of this program."

TIP-INS:

Harvard: The Crimson won their opening game in the tournament the past two years, upsetting New Mexico in 2013 and Cincinnati last season.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels, making their 46th appearance, improved to 111-43 in the NCAA Tournament. ... Coach Roy Williams is leading a team in the tourney for the 25th time.

AS GOOD AS EXPECTED

Saunders made 8 of 14 shots for Harvard, proving to be a tough matchup for North Carolina defensively.

"We thought we had a strategy for him, but it didn't work," Williams said.

UP NEXT:

Harvard: The Crimson have won five consecutive Ivy League title and will have three returning starters next season.

North Carolina: Arkansas or Wofford on Saturday.

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