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Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson lead North Carolina past Oregon, into title game

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was just too perfect.

Oregon’s inability to execute on the easiest, most fundamental play in college basketball is what won the game for the Tar Heels. Twice, with in the final 5.2 seconds, North Carolina went to the free throw line for two shots with a 77-76 lead. Twice, they missed both free throws. And twice, they grabbed the offensive rebound.

When it was all said and done, Theo Pinson was dribbling the clock out as Oregon laid on the floor in disbelief, their chance to win gone in the blink of a missed box out.

Kennedy Meeks finished with 25 points and 14 boards and Justin Jackson chipped in with 22 points as North Carolina advanced to their second consecutive national title game with a win over the Ducks on Saturday night. The Tar Heels will play Gonzaga for the national title on Monday night, and it’s fitting that Meeks was the star in the semifinals, because if UNC is going to cut down the nets, they’re going to need another yeoman’s performance out of the big fella.

Meeks had eight of North Carolina’s 17 offensive rebounds. One of those eight was the final rebound of the night, which he grabbed and kicked out to Theo Pinson, who managed to avoid getting fouled before throwing the ball a good 50 feet into the air as the buzzer sounded.

“Run away. From everybody,” Pinson said of his thought process in the final seconds. “And make sure you don’t get fouled because apparently we can make free throws.”

Meeks didn’t only grab the critical offensive rebound on Saturday night, he also happened to be the guy that went to the line and front-rimmed a pair of foul shots with 5.2 seconds left.

“I was out of it. Totally out of it,” Meeks said of his mindset after missing those two foul shots. “But my teammates came over to me and told me it’s gonna be fine we have another play to make.”

“He didn’t sulk. He didn’t just think about himself. He kept playing and made a play,” Pinson added. He knows a thing or two about making plays, as he was the man responsible for tipping out the first offensive rebound in that sequence, a play that put Joel Berry II on the line.

Those two plays are a pretty good summation of who North Carolina is this season. The Tar Heels are a program that historically have the reputation for being the kind of uptempo, pretty basketball team that wants to win a track meet but loses when games become a rock fight. They have a reputation for being soft. We can debate whether or not that is true or fair, but what isn’t debatable is the public perception of the team. It is what it is.

But that’s not how they won on Saturday.

North Carolina struggled for much of the first half on Saturday, digging themselves a 30-22 hold as they missed 18 of their first 24 shots. But over the course of the final four minutes of the half, UNC scored 17 points, closing the half on a 7-0 run that they pushed to 14-2 in the opening three minutes of the second half, and they never looked back.

The Tar Heels went to their bread and butter in the second half, pounding the ball inside to Meeks and attacking the offensive glass. They finished with 17 offensive rebounds (Meeks had eight of them) and 19 second-chance points on the night, including a pair of tip-ins by Meeks on back-to-back possessions that helped push their lead to 10 points for the first time.

Jackson played well, hitting a trio of huge threes in the second half, but UNC’s star point guard, Joel Berry II, struggled all night long. He was just 2-for-14 from the floor and finished with just two assists. Berry has been dealing with sprains to both of his ankles, and while he didn’t look like a player struggling with injury — he did dive on the floor for loose balls multiple times during the game — he did look like a guy that hasn’t done much beyond try to get his ankles healthy this week. Isaiah hicks was just as bad, going just 1-for-12 from the floor as he tried to take advantage of a mismatch against the smaller Ducks.

“I looked down there and I see that Isaiah’s 1-for-12, Joel 2-for-14,” Roy Williams said. “So we needed more offense from Kennedy tonight than we have a lot of games.”

It wasn’t just the second chance points that changed things for the Tar Heels.

It was their defense, and that’s coming from a program that’s hardly been a bastion of defensive efficiency over the years.

“We grinded that win out,” Jackson said.

Oregon star Dillon Brooks struggled throughout the night. He finished with just 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting, committing four of his five turnovers in the first half and fouling out with Oregon down by five points and 1:36 left on the clock. Tyler Dorsey has been Oregon’s best player in this tournament, and while he did finish with 21 points, he shot just 3-for-11 from the floor and struggled with the length of Jackson all night long.

Jackson, who also locked down Malik Monk in the Elite 8, did the heavy-lifting on Dorsey, while it was Pinson that was guarding Brooks. Dylan Ennis had 18 points for the Ducks, playing one of his best games of the season, but that was the result of the Tar Heels opting to put Isaiah Hicks or Luke Maye, whoever was their four, on Ennis instead of Brooks. It took him 19 shots to get to those 18 points, too.

“We just tried to make heir touches as hard as possible and when they got he ball be all over them,” Jackson said. “Get them off their spots. When you let them get to their spots they’re hard to guard.”

It’s not often that you hear of North Carolina winning games with their defense and their work on the offensive glass, but that’s what it was on Saturday.

The job won’t get any easier on Monday, however.

Gonzaga is an elite defensive team. They’re currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, which is the same spot they were in prior to the start of the NCAA tournament. They’ve been in the top five throughout season. North Carolina’s shots are not going to come easy against the Zags, not when their front court — consisting of 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski, 7-foot Zach Collins and 6-foot-10 Johnathan Williams III — takes away the advantage that the Tar Heels typically have in the paint.

The Zags can take away the things that North Carolina does best.

Which means that the Tar Heels are going to have to find a way to win, the same way they found a way to win on Saturday.

Minnesota’s Amir Coffey out for the season with shoulder injury

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Minnesota sophomore Amir Coffey will miss the rest of his sophomore season with a season-ending shoulder injury, according to a release from the school.

The 6-foot-8 Coffey was one of the Big Ten’s most productive freshman last season but he wasn’t able to stay consistently healthy during the 2017-18 campaign. Coffey put up solid numbers when he was able to play, averaging 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, but he missed 10 total games with the injury.

Coffey has been out for the last five games, and with Minnesota’s postseason hopes plummeting during an eight-game losing streak, the decision to hold him out was probably best for his long-term health.

Barford leads dominant Arkansas past No. 21 Texas A&M, 94-75

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Daniel Gafford capped off the most difficult stretch of his young Southeastern Conference career with a disappointing and foul-plagued performance the last time Arkansas faced Texas A&M.

The standout Razorbacks forward remembered that game all too well, and it showed as he added yet another dominating effort to his remarkable freshman season on Saturday.

Gafford scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting to lead Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 SEC) to its fourth straight win, 94-75 over the No. 21 Aggies. It was the fifth straight game in double figures for Gafford, who is shooting 70.7 percent (29 of 41) since the 80-66 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 30.

The 6-foot-11 freshman was on a mission to atone for that loss, and it showed as he hit his first five shots and punctuated the dominating win with a late dunk.

“Playing them here, in my mind I had to play smarter and more physical,” Gafford said. “Because in my mind, I was ready for them. I was ready for Tyler Davis, I was ready for pretty much all the big men because pretty much I got punked when we went up to Texas A&M, and I didn’t want that to happen tonight.”

Gafford had plenty of help from his teammates, with Jaylen Barford scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half and adding five rebounds and five assists for the surging Razorbacks.

Also, Daryl Macon finished with 20 points for an Arkansas team that’s won seven of its last nine. It was the eighth time in the last nine games Macon has scored 20 or more. C.J. Jones had 13 points off the bench.

Robert Williams had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8), which lost its second straight after entering the rankings this week. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also had three blocks and finished 10 of 13 from the field.

Admon Gilder also scored 20 points for the Aggies, while Davis added 15 points and T.J. Starks had 12. However, Texas A&M was unable to slow down an Arkansas team that shot 49.3 percent (35 of 71) from the field and hit 10 of 23 3-pointers.

“There’s not many teams going to come in here and beat Arkansas when they shoot the ball like they did today,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I thought they shot the ball extremely well and made some tough shots.”

REBOUNDING RAZORBACKS

Texas A&M entered the game 3rd nationally and tops in the SEC in rebounding with an average of 41.9 per game. The Aggies also outrebounded Arkansas 45-30 in their win last month, but the Razorbacks turned the tables on Saturday — finishing with a 45-33 edge on the glass.

Freshman Darious Hall followed up his career-best 11-rebound effort in a win over Mississippi earlier in the week with seven rebounds in only 17 minutes on Saturday, and Gafford and senior Trey Thompson had six rebounds apiece.

“This is a team that beat us by 15 at their place, and they’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country with all that size,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Somehow we found the energy. We found the players that were really engaged and going to get those rebounds.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas A&M: The last time the Aggies won in Fayetteville was March 1, 1986, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference and Arkansas still played in Barnhill Arena. They led only once on Saturday, a 4-2 advantage that disappeared quickly after the Razorbacks went on an 11-0 run. Texas A&M was 0 of 7 on 3-pointers while trailing 43-32 at halftime, and it just avoided matching its season low for 3-pointers — finishing 4 of 17 as a team.

Arkansas: The win starts a difficult five-game stretch to end the regular season for Arkansas, which entered Saturday 32nd in the NCAA’s RPI ratings. Beginning with the 18th-rated Aggies, the Razorbacks face teams all 31st or higher in the ratings during the five games — including Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. They started the stretch in dominating fashion on Saturday, a key victory for a team hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four seasons this year.

UP NEXT

Texas A&M returns home to face Mississippi State on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks host Kentucky on Tuesday.

Kentucky beats Alabama 81-71 behind Washington’s 16 points

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Four straight losses were enough for Kentucky.

PJ Washington scored 16 points, Kevin Knox added 13, and Kentucky beat Alabama 81-71 on Saturday to end a four-game slide.

“They played desperately,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We gave away some games this year and we have to start taking games away from people, which means desperation.”

The Wildcats (18-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) displayed a sense of urgency against the Crimson Tide, especially in the rebounding department. The Wildcats held a commanding 44-27 edge on the glass and grabbed 20 offensive boards, resulting in 20 second-chance points for the hosts.

“They were desperate and they had a lot of energy,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.

Quade Green scored 12 points, Jarred Vanderbilt scored a career-high 11 off the bench with nine rebounds, and Nick Richards added 10 points for the Wildcats.

Vanderbilt played a key role down the stretch for the Wildcats and finished with nine rebounds.

“We came together the last five minutes,” Vanderbilt said. “We made some key plays down the stretch, took care of the ball and we just executed.”

For Kentucky, which hadn’t won since an 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 30, fending off the Crimson Tide (17-10, 8-6) wasn’t an easy task. The Wildcats have won six straight over Alabama, including 11 of the past 12 games.

“It felt like we were back to normal and back to where we needed to be,” Washington said. “We just need to keep building from here.”

Alabama, the top defensive team in the conference, forced eight ties and 15 lead changes until the Wildcats gained control midway through the second half to avoid a fifth straight loss. Kentucky led for the final eight minutes.

Knox, Kentucky’s leading scorer, sat out 14 minutes of the first half because of foul trouble, but picked up the scoring load with all of his 13 points in the second half. Knox connected on first field-goal 7/8- a 3-pointer with 13:22 remaining — to ignite the Wildcats’ stagnant offense and spark the team’s impressive finish.

Kentucky led 39-34 at the break amid four ties and 11 lead changes. The Wildcats got most of their scoring off the bench in the opening half with Green and Washington combining for 15 points. Green paved the way with nine and made four of five field goals.

“They just outworked us,” Alabama forward Donata Hall said. “They were a hungry team.”

Hall led Alabama with 16 points, John Petty had 13, Colin Sexton 12 and Alex Reese 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats, who have lost three straight road games (Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn), will attempt to end the slide Tuesday at Arkansas, which lost just one of its first 14 games at home this season. Kentucky, five games behind conference leader Auburn, is out of contention for a fourth consecutive regular-season title, although a top-four finish isn’t out of question.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide, 5-1 against ranked teams this season, including a 76-71 win over No. 10 Auburn on Jan. 17 in Tuscaloosa, will attempt a sweep of the Tigers Wednesday. Alabama will attempt to lock up one of four top spots and a bye during the final two weeks of the regular season. Alabama coach Avery Johnson fell to 0-6 in games against Kentucky.

PELPHREY RETURNS

Former Kentucky forward John Pelphrey, an assistant coach at Alabama, made his return to Rupp Arena. Pelphrey, a former Mr. Basketball at Paintsville High School in 1987, played for the Wildcats from 1988-92 and was a member of the “Unforgettables” squad that lost to Duke in the 1992 East Region finals.

UP NEXT

Kentucky is at Arkansas Tuesday.

Alabama visits No. 10 Auburn Wednesday.

No. 3 Villanova continues reign of dominance over No. 4 Xavier, winning 95-79

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Villanova is not a perfect basketball team.

They have their flaws. Their depth in an issue. Their defense is a bigger issue. Their health seems to be working itself out, but with a rotation that has been as shallow as six guys at time, they are never more than one sprained ankle away from being put in a spot where their starters play too many minutes.

And despite all of that, one thing remains true about this group: They are always capable of putting together a shooting performance that leaves you wondering how in the world they ever lost a game to begin with.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday in Cincinnati, as the No. 3 Wildcats — having lost two of their last three games to fall a game out of first place in the Big East — went into the Cintas Center and truck-sticked No. 4 Xavier, 95-79. It’s a result we all probably should have seen coming. Villanova has, after all, won four straight Big East regular season titles, and they weren’t about to lay down and let the Musketeers take control of their league. Especially since it’s Xavier. In the 11 games since Xavier and Villanova became conference foes, the Wildcats are now 10-1 with an average winning margin of 17.6 points.

Mikal Bridges led the way, scoring 16 of his 25 points in a first half where he buried four of Villanova’s 11 threes. Their lead ballooned as high as 21 points, and they took a 51-37 lead into halftime. Xavier made their run in the second half, getting as close as 62-59 before Donte DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points, nine assists and nine boards, helped to spark a surge that put the game away.

The difference-maker here was Villanova’s shooting. They were 11-for-19 from three in the first half. They shot 16-for-34 for the game. In losses to St. John’s and Providence in the last two weeks, the Wildcats struggled from beyond the arc. They were 8-for-33 against St. John’s, just 2-for-17 in the second half, and they shot 3-for-19 from distance at Providence during the week.

And it is also worth noting that they got some terrific play from two of their young, unproven freshman who combined to score 11 straight points during a five-minute second half stretch. Dhamir Cosby-Rountree had two critical buckets as Villanova pulled away late midway through the second half, when he was on the floor for Eric Paschall, who had picked up four fouls. And Collin Gillispie followed that up by banging home a three and scoring on a tough finger-roll over Sean O’Mara that helped hold Xavier at bay. All told, Cosby-Rountree finished with four points, three boards and a block while Gillispie chipped in with 10 points of his own.

Perhaps most impressive in all of this was that Villanova put together this kind of a performance on an afternoon where Jalen Brunson struggled to get into his normal rhythm. He finished with 11 points and eight assists, but shot just 5-for-12 from the floor and 1-for-6 from three. For a player that is having a historically-great season from an efficiency perspective, those are surprising numbers.

What it all adds up to is this: The Wildcats are not yet ready to relinquish control over the Big East regular season title. Xavier is still technically in first place by a half-game — they’re 12-3 while Villanova is 11-3 — but for all intents and purposes, they’re tied. Xavier’s schedule down the stretch is much easier than what Villanova has remaining. Xavier has road trips to Georgetown and DePaul left while Villanova still has to go to Creighton and Seton Hall.

That story is still left to be told.

But the simple fact of the matter is that Xavier had a chance to take a two-game lead on Villanova with two weeks left in the regular season and they couldn’t get the job done.

And if they slip up again in their final three games, they may be left wondering ‘what if?’ all over again.

Duke’s Marvin Bagley III to miss third straight game with knee issue

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Duke announced on Saturday afternoon that star freshman Marvin Bagley III will miss his third straight game with what they have dubbed a mild knee sprain.

Bagley suffered the injury in the first half at North Carolina, and while he played the rest of that game, he sat out wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Both of those games came in Cameron Indoor Stadium. On Sunday, they’ll be playing on the road against a shorthanded No. 11 Clemson program.

In Bagley’s absence, Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Alex O’Connell have played more minutes while Grayson Allen has seemingly rediscovered his confidence. He’s averaging 24 points and six assists in the last two games.