Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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

5 Comments

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.

No. 2 Arizona drops second-straight

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — SMU attacked the glass and kept scoring off turnovers to offset a bad shooting performance. It was enough to hand No. 2 Arizona a second stunning loss to an unranked opponent in two nights.

Ben Emelogu scored 20 points and the Mustangs upset the Wildcats 66-60 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis, a jarring start for an Arizona team that began the season as a Final Four favorite with a preseason Associated Press All-American in Allonzo Trier.

Arizona (3-2) lost to North Carolina State 90-84 in Wednesday’s first round. It’s the first time the Wildcats have dropped back-to-back games against nonconference opponents since losing to Mississippi State and San Diego State in November 2011.

“This is a different feeling,” coach Sean Miller said. “It might be healthy for our team because instead of everybody telling you how good you are and you’re going to get to a Final Four and you’re awesome, it’s going to go opposite now.

“And I think that it could be something that drives our team to have even better practice to fix a few things and hopefully get back in the winner’s circle.”

The Mustangs (5-1) blew an 11-point lead in the second half but responded with a 10-2 run to go ahead for good. SMU won despite shooting 31 percent and going eight minutes without a basket in the second half.

“I always say — and everybody thinks I’m lying but I’m not when I say this — the best wins of the year are always when you can’t get your shots to go in the basket and you find a way to win anyway,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “That’s how great seasons are made. Everybody wins when they shoot great and feel great and all that.”

The Mustangs hung on in two ways. First, they capitalized on 20 Arizona turnovers by scoring 19 points off those miscues. Then there was their effort on the boards; they were outrebounded 43-39 overall but nearly doubled up Arizona on the offensive glass (20-11) to finish with 23 more shot attempts and 14 second-chance points.

“We talk about this all the time,” Jankovich said. “Really break it down: Does it take a lot of talent to go run after a ball? Does it take a lot of talent to dive on a ball? … And the answer is no. So really what it takes is the character and it takes an unselfishness and a commitment to the things that win rather than the things that necessarily make me look good.

“And in the end, if you have a team full of those guys, then you’re going to have a successful team.”

Trier scored 22 points to lead the Wildcats, who shot 47 percent. Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton added 17 points and 15 rebounds, but no other Wildcats player scored in double figures. Arizona also shot just 5 of 20 on 3-pointers.

“No, our confidence isn’t affected at all,” freshman forward Ira Lee said. “We’ve just got to see these two games as a learning experience and move on.”

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: Miller immediately said offense wasn’t the problem after the loss to N.C. State, noting the Wildcats haven’t dropped many games when scoring 84 points. Rather, he was concerned about a bad defensive effort. This time, his team had some good defensive moments, but Miller said there was something missing in glaring fashion.

“Maybe we did play some good defense,” Miller said, “but defense always ends with the rebounding. And we were unable to rebound.”

SMU: The Mustangs trailed much of the way against Northern Iowa in their first-round tournament game, but played from ahead in this one. They also came up with a counterpunch, regaining the lead after Arizona erased that 11-point deficit.

“The effort, gosh darn, I don’t care if we were big or tiny or medium-sized out there or who was guarding who, I saw some fighting cats out there,” Jankovich said. “And I loved it.”

EMELOGU’S NIGHT

Emelogu went 7 of 11 from the field and 5 of 7 on 3-pointers to lead SMU’s offense. The rest of SMU’s starters made 12 of 53 shots (23 percent).

“A lot of times, you just play hard and play defense, you win games even though offense didn’t go our way,” Emelogu said.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats will play No. 18 Purdue in Friday’s seventh-place game.

SMU: The Mustangs will play Western Kentucky in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Western Kentucky upsets No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Bahamas

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Darius Thompson scored 12 points and hit two clinching free throws with 5.1 seconds left to help Western Kentucky upset No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Hilltoppers (3-2) led nearly the entire night, but needed to make several clutch plays late to hang on.

P.J. Thompson hit a corner 3-pointer with 5.8 seconds remaining to bring the Boilermakers (4-2) to 75-73, but Thompson answered with two free throws that made it a two-possession game and all but sealed the win.

Justin Johnson led the Hilltoppers with 17 points, including a tough driving score for a five-point lead with 21 seconds left.

Isaac Haas scored 22 points to lead Purdue, which shot just 32 percent in the first half. The Boilermakers trailed 42-31 at the break and never fully recovered.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: That’s an 0-2 showing in two days for the Boilermakers in the Bahamas. The high-scoring, 3-point shooting offense hasn’t found its rhythm here, though Purdue shot 50 percent after halftime in this one to give itself a chance late.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers were coming off a loss to No. 5 Villanova, making this the first time they had played consecutive games against ranked opponents since the 1993 NCAA Tournament. But they earned a win against a ranked team for just the second time in the last 15 tries.

UP NEXT

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Arizona-SMU loser in Friday’s seventh-place game.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will play the Arizona-SMU winner in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Duke overcomes tenacious Portland State 99-81

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Marvin Bagley III said the Blue Devils knew they had to wake up for the second half against Portland State.

And eventually, they did. Trevon Duval had 22 points and No. 1 Duke pulled away for a 99-81 victory over the surprisingly tenacious Vikings on Thursday to open the Phil Knight Invitational.

 Bagley added 18 points, and Grayson Allen had 14 points and nine assists. The Blue Devils (6-0) will face the winner of the Thursday game between Butler and Texas.

Duke trailed by as many as eight points but took control midway through the second half when Wendell Carter Jr.’s dunk put the Blue Devils in front 67-62. They would go on to lead by as many as 21 points.

“The first half we obviously weren’t playing like we were normally do. We weren’t doing the things that we do well. We weren’t going to our strengths. We kind of came out sluggish,” Bagley said. “But going into the second half it was just ‘You have to wake up.’ They (the coaches) mentioned to us that these are the type of games that are going to be like that if you don’t come out ready to play.

It was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 200th victory as coach of a No. 1-ranked team. He’s 200-29 when the Blue Devils sit atop the poll.

Deontae North led the Vikings (4-1) with 24 points, including 20 in the first half, but fouled out with 8:39 left in the game.

It was the first time in program history that the Vikings had faced a top-ranked team. Portland State’s last win over a ranked opponent was an 86-82 victory over then-No. 25 Portland in December 2009.

“I thought they just knocked us back the whole first half,” Krzyzewski said. “We were in a reactionary mode the first 20 minutes.”

The tournament involves 16 teams playing in two brackets on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with a break on Saturday. The field also includes No. 4 Michigan State, No. 7 Florida and defending national champion North Carolina.

Dubbed the PK80, the tournament celebrates Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday.

Duke and Portland State were in the Motion Bracket, playing Thursday at the Memorial Coliseum. Teams in the Victory Bracket played at the adjacent Moda Center.

Knight was sitting courtside for the game.

The five-time NCAA champion Blue Devils were coming off a 92-63 victory over Furman on Monday night, led by Bagley with 24 points.

Portland State was coming off an 83-79 victory over Utah State at the Memorial Coliseum on Monday. The Vikings are playing the first season under coach Barret Peery.

“I’m proud of our team,” Peery said. “But I was proud of our team before the ball went up.”

Portland State was no pushover from the start, taking a 12-11 lead on North’s 3-pointer with 16:54 to go in the opening half. North hit another 3 that put the Vikings up 19-15 and Michael Mayhew’s jumper extended the lead.

North made another 3 to make it 33-26 with 8:33 left in the half. The Vikings stayed out in front until Gary Trent Jr. made a pair of free throws for Duke to tie it at 42 with 2:09 left in the half.

Mayhew hit a long 3-pointer and Portland State led 49-45 at the half. Mayhew was among five Vikings who fouled out in the second half.

Carter’s layup put Duke out in front 54-53, but North answered with a jumper and Bryce Canda added a 3-pointer.

Carter had another layup to give the Blue Devils a 61-60 lead and Bagley’s tip-in pushed the lead to 63-60, energizing the mostly blue-clad crowd at the Coliseum. Duke never trailed again.

“This was a big stage for us,” said Canda, who finished with 14 points. “But we can’t hang our heads.”

BIG PICTURE

Duke: Allen scored just five points against Furman, and Krzyzewski said he was banged up and held out of a couple of practices going into the game. But he was back in form against Portland State. He taunted a Portland State player late in the game and got a technical, eliciting a strong reaction from Krzyzewski.

Portland State: It was the first time Portland State had faced a No. 1-ranked team. The Vikings have twice faced a No. 2 team, including Duke in 1997. … The Vikings play in the Big Sky conference. They’ve made the NCAA tournament twice, in 2008 and 2009, with first-round losses both times.

MORE COACH K: Krzyzewski has coached 229 games with a No. 1-ranked team, surpassing John Wooden for the lead. … It is the 500th week that Duck has been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll under him, most by a coach in the AP Top 25’s history.

NORTH’S SECOND TECH: North was on the floor in front of the scorer’s desk, getting ready to check into the game when he earned his second tech of the game. Coach Peery said apparently the ref thought North had commented on the previous play.

UP NEXT

Duke: The Blue Devils go on to face the winner of the late Thursday afternoon game between Butler and Texas when the tournament continues on Friday.

Portland State: The Vikings will face the Butler-Texas loser.

Terrell lifts Rhode Island past No. 20 Seton Hall, 75-74

Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK (AP) — Jared Terrell made a running layup with 5.2 seconds left to give Rhode Island a 75-74 victory over No. 20 Seton Hall on Thursday night in the second game of the Preseason NIT.

Terrell finished with 32 points to help the Rams improve to 3-1. Stanford Robinson added 15 points.

Myles Powell led the Pirates (4-1) with 21 points. Angel Delgado had 18 points and 14 rebounds, and Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez had 12 points each.

Following Terrell’s layup, Seton Hall inbounded the ball to Carrington, who raced up court but lost his dribble and the Pirates were unable to recover the loose ball before the buzzer sounded.

Trailing by nine at halftime, Seton Hall outscored Rhode Island 27-17 in a 14:06 span to take the lead at 72-71. Carrington made two free throws with 5:54 left to give the Pirates their first lead since his jumper 5:09 into the game.

Defense was both the cause and effect for Seton Hall’s turnaround. Specifically, the Pirates played defense in the second half after surrendering 60.7 percent (17 of 28) shooting from the field — including 77.8 percent (7 of 9) from 3-point range — —in the first 20 minutes.

The Rams regained the the lead, 73-72, on Andre Berry’s layup with 4:05 left. The lead lasted for 2:02 until Ismael Sanogo’s layup gave Seton Hall a one-point advantage.

BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: The Pirates entered the game having yielded just 254 points_or an average of 63.5 points per game_in winning their first four games. Against Rhode Island, Seton Hall allowed 54 points in the first half and the Rams broke the 64-point barrier with 11:03 left in the second half on Jared Terrell’s 3 in front of the Rhode Island bench.

Rhode Island: The Rams authored an otherworldly offensive performance — in the first half. Rhode Island scored 54 points on 60.7 percent shooting. But college basketball is a two-half game and, in the second, Rhode Island only made 8 of 31 shots from the field.

NOTABLE

Seton Hall Fell to 7-2 against Rhode Island

Rhode Island: The second of two games at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center also marked the second time Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley coached against his alma mater. Hurley scored 1,070 points in five years at Seton Hall.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: Plays Vanderbilt in the consolation game Friday.

Rhode Island: Plays Virginia in the championship Friday.

No. 5 Villanova beats Tennessee 85-76 in Battle 4 Atlantis

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
1 Comment

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — Jalen Brunson scored 25 points to help fifth-ranked Villanova rally from 15 down and beat Tennessee 85-76 in Thursday’s semifinals at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Wildcats (5-0) trailed 44-29 with 1:39 left before roaring out of a break with a dominating run. Villanova scored the first 11 points as part of that 23-2 burst, with the Wildcats playing far more aggressively and getting out in transition.

Mikal Bridges added 21 points for Villanova, which shot 52 percent after halftime and built a 15-point lead with 4:40 left before having to hold off a late rally by the Volunteers.

Grant Williams scored 20 points for Tennessee (3-1), which clawed to within 79-76 on Admiral Schofield’s 3-pointer with 51.6 seconds left. But that was as close as the Volunteers got, with Villanova hitting four free throws and getting a breakaway dunk from Donte DiVincenzo with 13.2 seconds left to seal it.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers were coming off an overtime win against No. 18 Purdue in the first round and they were poised to add an even bigger upset. But that flat second-half start wiped out a strong half’s worth of work and squandered the momentum that came through their board work and converting turnovers.

Villanova: That’s two straight days the Wildcats put together a second-half spurt to take control in the Bahamas. They did it in Round 1 against Western Kentucky to finally break the game open, but this one — full of active hands, deflected passes and guys diving on the floor — brought them back in a game that was once getting away from them.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the North Carolina State-Northern Iowa loser in Friday’s third-place game.

Villanova: The Wildcats will play the N.C. State-Northern Iowa winner in Friday’s championship game.