GLENDALE, Ariz. â€” North Carolina missed the shots. No surprise there.
Kennedy Meeks saved the game. No surprise there, either.
Meeks, the only Tar Heel who could shoot straight Saturday night, muscled away the game-saving offensive rebound in a 77-76 victory over Oregon after ice-cold Carolina missed its fourth straight free throw down the stretch.
All part of a career night for the North Carolina senior, who was on the bench in last year’s championship game when Villanova devastatingly ended the Tar Heels’ chance at a title with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
In this one, Meeks was front and centre. He finished 11 for 13 to match his career high with 25 points. And he had 14 rebounds, eight of which came on the offensive glass and none of which was more important than the last. It secured a Monday-night date with Gonzaga in the title game, where the Tar Heels (32-7) will go for the program’s sixth title.
“If it wasn’t for Kennedy Meeks, we wouldn’t have been in the basketball game,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
Meeks had plenty to mop up for.
The rest of his team shot a brick-a-minute 14 for 55 from the floor (25 per cent). Justin Jackson was one of the few to break through. He had 22 points on 6-for-13 shooting, including a five-minute stretch with three 3-pointers and two free throws that helped the Heels to a double-digit lead and put them on the verge of a runaway midway through the second half.
Given the lead and Oregon’s own awful shooting (37 per cent), losing this one might have felt every bit as bad as the Villanova loss last year. This is, after all, a team on a mission with only one acceptable destination.
“I just didn’t want to lose another game off a winning shot,” said Joel Berry II, who missed the free throw that Meeks tore away from Jordan Bell to ice the game. “I wish we would have closed it out.”
Didn’t quite happen. And after Keith Smith’s layup pulled Oregon within 77-76 with 7 seconds left (should Oregon have pulled it out for a game-tying 3? Maybe so), it looked like it would come down to free throws.
It did, and it wasn’t pretty.
First, Meeks got fouled, stepped to the line and rimmed out two. But Theo Pinson got inside and batted the ball back out to Berry, who then got fouled with 4 seconds left and took his turn at the line.
Berry missed both, too. But Meeks got inside of Bell for that final rebound, threw it outside to Pinson, who dribbled out the clock to end this ugly affair.
“My main focus was, if Joel missed the second free throw, to hit the offensive glass hard,” Meeks said.
Bell finished with 13 points and 16 rebounds, but needed No. 17 to give the Ducks a last shot.
“Jordan felt terrible,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “But I told him, ‘Buddy, you got 16 rebounds, we wouldn’t have been in this position if it hadn’t been for you.'”
Dylan Ennis of Brampton, Ont., had 18 points. Fellow Canadian Dillon Brooks of Mississauga, Ont., has been the leader for Oregon all season, but struggled, finishing with 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting before fouling out.
That it came down to Carolina winning on the boards was no big surprise. This was the best rebounding team in the country this season, grabbing an average of 13 more boards than their opponents over the course of the season.
Against the Ducks, the rebounding battle was even (43 each), though North Carolina got five more on the offensive glass, which resulted in 19 second-chance points, 10 more shots and, eventually, the win.
“I think coach, definitely, when we’re gone, he’s going to tell that story,” said Pinson, who finished with eight points and eight boards. “That just shows how big offensive rebounding is. Boxing out at the end of the game. I’m sure (Bell) wished he’d boxed out right there.”
ANKLE TROUBLE: Berry played, as promised, but his shot was troubled by the injured ankles that limited him in practice all week. He was 2 for 14 from the floor and 5 for 9 from the line and finished with 11 points.
MR. MARCH: Tyler Dorsey had been lighting it up through the tournament for Oregon, shooting 65 per cent from 3, but the Tar Heels got in his face early and he never got on track. His 21 points came on 11 shots from the field and he only went 3 for 7 from behind the arc. Oregon shot 3 for 18 from 3 in the second half.
GOOD COMPANY: According to ESPN Stats and Info, Meeks joins Larry Bird, Ed O’Bannon, Carmelo Anthony and Danny Manning as the only players to reach 25 points and 14 rebounds in the Final Four over the last 40 years.
NEXT UP: Carolina vs. Gonzaga in the title game Monday. Ducks’ season over after falling a game short of returning to the title game for the first time since 1939, the first NCAA Tournament.
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Eddie Pells, The Associated Press