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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.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.

Report: Nike, Adidas and Under Armour all pass on sponsoring Lonzo Ball

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Lonzo Ball will enter his rookie season in the NBA without a sponsorship deal from Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, only his family’s Big Baller Brand apparel.

That, according to a report from ESPN, is due to his father LaVar’s insistence that Lonzo not sign with one of the three major apparel companies unless they opted to sign a licensing deal for Big Baller Brand merchandise instead of outfitting Lonzo with their own gear.

“We’ve said from the beginning, we aren’t looking for an endorsement deal,” LaVar told ESPN. “We’re looking for co-branding, a true partner. But they’re not ready for that because they’re not used to that model. But hey, the taxi industry wasn’t ready for Uber, either.”

LaVar had been representing his son in the negotiations, and is now expected to reach out to other shoe brands, including Chinese apparel companies like Li-Nang.

Big Baller Brand is a startup apparel company launched by LaVar Ball. They sell t-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, with most of their products costing at least $50.

Lonzo declared for the NBA Draft after an all-american season that saw him and the UCLA Bruins flame out of the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16. UCLA lost to Kentucky in that game, and Lonzo had a quiet night while his point guard counterpart, De’Aaron Fox, went off for 39 points.

Lonzo is a likely top three pick in the NBA Draft and, potentially, could still end up going No. 1. He has two younger brothers as well. LiAngelo will be a freshman with the Bruins next season while LaMelo just finished his sophomore season in high school. Both will attend UCLA.