Two weeks ago, then-No. 9 Gonzaga began a daunting three-game stretch against ranked foes that featured games at No. 22 Washington and No. 14 Arizona and against No. 6 North Carolina.
After victories against the two Pac-12 powers, the Bulldogs return home Wednesday for perhaps the most anticipated game in the 15-year history of their cozy McCarthey Athletic Center — and a rematch of the 2017 NCAA Tournament championship game, which the Tar Heels won 71-65 by scoring the final eight points.
But while the Zags (11-1) have moved up to No. 2 in the latest Associated Press Top 25, the Tar Heels (6-4) have dropped out of the rankings for the first time since 2014.
North Carolina failed to surpass 50 points in defeats to No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Virginia in back-to-back games earlier this month before losing 68-64 to Wofford on Sunday. It was the Tar Heels in their first regular-season home game at Carmichael Arena since 1986 and star freshman point guard Cole Anthony (injured right knee) and fellow starter Leaky Black (sprained right foot) were sidelined.
The school announced Tuesday that Anthony underwent arthroscopic surgery Monday on his right knee to repair a partially torn meniscus and will be sidelined from four to six weeks.
Anthony is the second-leading scorer among freshmen nationally with 19.1 points per game.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he found out on Saturday morning that Anthony would be unavailable to play, and later received word Black would be out. UNC also announced forward Sterling Manley is out for the season after having surgery on his left knee Dec. 12.
“We tried to practice Friday, and all of a sudden here are some things on Saturday,” Williams said. “But that’s an excuse. It still said North Carolina on our shirt. I didn’t do a good enough job to get us through.”
With Anthony out, junior guard K.J. Smith got his first start for the Tar Heels, Smith, the son of former North Carolina All-American Kenny Smith, had played a total of 22 minutes in eight previous games this season. He finished with seven points and four assists in 26 minutes. Freshman Jeremiah Francis, who missed his final two seasons in high school because of knee surgeries and had only played once before for the Tar Heels, added three assists.
“We play exceptionally hard and try to do the right things and guys were out there trying to play,” Williams said. “I mean, I’m so proud of Jeremiah Francis for trying. I mean, he hadn’t played in three years and trying to do those kind of things. K.J. (Smith) hadn’t played and did some things that helped us. We’re going to benefit in the long run from it, but it doesn’t make it any more pleasant to go through right now.”
The Bulldogs moved up in the rankings after an 84-80 victory Saturday at Arizona.
Corey Kispert scored 18 points, Filip Petrusev added 16 and Gonzaga held on despite Arizona’s 15-4 run in the final 2:12.
“We’re really resilient,” said GU guard Joel Ayayi, who had 15 points and seven assists. “We never quit. We never think the game’s over until it’s over. For us to win on the road in that type of atmosphere is a pretty good win.”
–Field Level Media