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.