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Villanova outlasts No. 14 North Carolina in OT, 83-81; Dixon enjoys career night, 1,000th point

The Wildcats gave the Nova Nation a few more things to be thankful for on Thanksgiving, as they held off North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Villanova at North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Thanksgiving dinner is going to taste a lot better for Villanova and its fans.

In the first meeting between Villanova and North Carolina since the 2016 national championship, it was fitting that it was another back-and-forth thriller that came down to the wire.

There would be no Kris Jenkins-like buzzer-beater, but there were certainly some big individual performances and decisive plays late that would tip in the game in Villanova’s favor.

The Wildcats got a marquee 83-81 overtime victory over No. 14-ranked North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals.

“We’re still growing and learning as a team, but obviously, we got two veteran guys that led us tonight and now we’ve got another game,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said. “We’re happy.”

Eric Dixon enjoyed a career night, finishing with a 34-point, 10-rebound double-double. His memorable performance also included his 1,000th career point.

“At the end of the day, Eric Dixon kicked our tail, he just had a phenomenal game,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “His ability to not only score in the post, but he hit threes. His passing — he just dictates everything on both ends of the floor. Defensively, he did a good job against Armando. I really think the difference-maker was Eric in the way he played tonight.”

Dixon single-handedly buoyed the ‘Cats to start, scoring 20 of his 34 points in the first half. He remained a monster on the court, but in overtime, it would be Mark Armstrong who would deliver a crucial drive and score in traffic to give the ‘Cats a 79-76 lead with 40 seconds left.

North Carolina’s R.J. Davis tried to quickly answer on the other end, but smoked an open layup, and the ‘Cats corralled the miss. Villanova maintained its small cushion, but there was a brief scare as Cormac Ryan picked off an inbounds pass in the final seconds of the game.

He would make the first, and get injured while intentionally trying to miss. However, the ball never hit the rim on the second free throw attempt, and the ‘Cats kept possession and held on for the win after successfully inbounding the ball.

It was suspenseful from start to finish. The Tar Heels had what appeared to be a game-changing run in each half, but the ‘Cats would respond each time.

“Some things didn’t go our way,” Neptune said. “We missed shots we can make. They’re a good defensive team. They’re big, athletic and had a good gameplan to make it tough for us, but credit to our guys. They just stayed poised and kept coming.”

North Carolina went on a 13-0 run capped by a Harrison Ingram three to take a 27-18 lead with 5:40 remaining in the first half. However, the ‘Cats would finish the first-half strong, thanks to the dominant play by Dixon.

Villanova briefly took the lead, but Davis hit a buzzer-beating corner three to give the Tar Heels a 34-32 lead at the break.

In the second half, North Carolina would use another big run to re-extend its lead to nine, the Tar Heels’ highest lead of the game. Davis capped another North Carolina scoring blitz, sinking a layup to give the Tar Heels a 55-46 lead with 10:52 remaining in regulation.

A physical game from opening tip, the ‘Cats chipped away at the deficit from the free throw line and strung together stops. A pair of Dixon free throws tied the game back up at 59, with 6:54 left, and it would be a back-and-forth battle until the final buzzer.

Justin Moore, who had a quiet first half where he didn’t take any shots, started to impose himself. All 16 of his points came in the second half or later, and he was a crucial shot-maker through contact down the stretch.

“Big-time players do big-time things in big-time moments,” Neptune said of Moore. “Honestly, as a coach, looking at those guys in the huddle gave me confidence. They weren’t rattled at all and they just kept coming.”

Villanova went cold in the final three minutes of regulation and didn’t score, but it was able to cling onto a small 68-65 lead with its defense. The Wildcats almost managed to win in regulation, until Cormac Ryan drilled the game-tying three with 34 seconds left in the second half.

North Carolina got a stop, and Davis tried to snatch the game for the Tar Heels with a three-point shot at the buzzer, but it clanked off the rim and the game went into overtime.

Aside from Dixon’s double-double, Moore had 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting. Armstrong, who had a rocky start to the game, finished with 10 points after the big overtime layup and was efficient from the free throw line. Jordan Longino added nine points and three boards off the bench.

Villanova went 32-of-36 from the free throw line as a team. (88.9%)

For North Carolina, Davis paced the Tar Heels with 23 points. Harrison Ingram had 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting before fouling out. Cormac Ryan had 18 points before his injury. Armando Bacot had eight points, but 18 rebounds.

The ‘Cats will play the winner of Arkansas-Memphis in Friday’s championship game. The finals are set to tip-off at 3:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN.