North Carolina is back. Back to where it was a year ago. Back to the doorstep of a national championship. Barely.
The Tar Heels let a double-digit lead dwindle to one in the final 10 seconds of Saturday’s national semifinal against Oregon, but they held on for a 77-76 victory to secure a Monday date with Gonzaga.
They advanced on the backs of Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson, two upperclassmen who were here last year, and two upperclassmen who seized the stage of the Final Four. Meeks had 25 points, and sealed the win with a monstrous offensive rebound, his eighth of the game, on a missed free throw with only a few seconds left. His teammates mobbed him at the final horn.
“If it wasn’t for Kennedy Meeks, we wouldn’t have been in the basketball game,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams told CBS after the game.
Meeks had 14 rebounds overall, and the Tar Heels had 19 second-chance points. They were the difference in the game. Many of them came from Meeks, who bullied an undersized Oregon front line all night.
Jackson also excelled in the second half, and helped North Carolina pull away before the Ducks stormed back to make things tight late. Jackson poured in 22 points, and with Joel Berry struggling, perhaps hampered by the ankle injury he sustained in the Elite Eight against Kentucky, all 22 of them were necessary.
Every single one of North Carolina’s 17 offensive rebounds was necessary, too — especially the final two. Meeks went to the line with six seconds remaining, and missed two free throws, but Jordan Bell failed to box out Theo Pinson, and Pinson’s back-tap eluded the Ducks. Berry also missed both of his free throws after he was fouled with three seconds remaining, but Meeks powered his way around Bell and sealed the win.
The two biggest rebounds of North Carolina’s season. #FinalFour #GoHeels pic.twitter.com/Qv8l6fGL1t — NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 2, 2017
The game at times turned into a track meet, but began with both teams out of sync. No Oregon player outside of Payton Pritchard and Bell made a field goal in the opening nine minutes. The Ducks turned the ball over seven times in those nine minutes, and coughed it up 16 times on the night.
Their offense was also hindered by the ineffectiveness of Dillon Brooks. To combat the potential mismatch that Brooks presented, North Carolina put power forward Isaiah Hicks on 6-foot-2 guard Dylan Ennis instead of on Brooks. Pinson and Jackson handled Brooks for much of the game, and held Oregon’s star to just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting.
Oregon did stay neck and neck with the Tar Heels early on, though, because North Carolina came out of the gates ice cold. It made only four of its first 18 shots, and was sputtering offensively despite pulling down five early offensive rebounds.
Isaiah Hicks, even with a smaller defender on him, started 0 for 5. Bell blocked two shots in the opening stages, and affected many more. Meeks was the only effective Tar Heel; he had 10 points and three offensive boards in the first 15 minutes.
Meeks’ ninth and 10th points cut Oregon’s lead to two, but with the UNC center out of the game, Oregon made a quick move. Ennis hit two 3-pointers from the corner, and suddenly Oregon was up eight. The sixth-year senior paced a balanced Ducks attack with eight points in the first half.
But North Carolina finally found its offense over the last four minutes of the half. After scoring 22 points in the first 16 minutes, it exploded for 17 and went into halftime with a three-point lead, 39-36. Nate Britt was the catalyst of one crucial sequence. The senior guard drilled a 3, contested one well on the other end, then ran a fast break and slipped a pass to Meeks for a layup that gave North Carolina the lead. Meeks led all scorers at halftime with 14.
The second half began as the first did: With Meeks, offensive rebounds and put-backs. The 260-pound senior beat Oregon to the boards twice, first for a tip-in and again for a tip-slam.
Nothing meek about this put-back! #FinalFour #GoHeels pic.twitter.com/X9BbDECT4X — NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 2, 2017
He scored a third time inside to give North Carolina a seven-point lead. It was Meeks’ ninth field goal of the game, and all nine came in the paint. He would finish 11-for-13.