Kennedy Meeks atoned for quiet night against Kentucky with 25 points and 14 rebounds as North Carolina defeated Oregon to reach national championship game. (Photo by J.D. Lyon Jr./Tar Heel Photo)
After scoring only seven points in Sunday's South Regional final, Kennedy Meeks insisted he needed to take matters into his own hands to ensure North Carolina would play for a national championship, by any means necessary.
The senior forward lived up to his proclamation Saturday, tying a career-high with 25 points and amassing 14 rebounds, none bigger than his last; an offensive board following Joel Berry II's missed free throw with four seconds left in regulation, helping UNC escape Oregon with a 77-76 victory and an opportunity to win the program's sixth NCAA Tournament championship.
Meeks himself missed two free throws not even two seconds prior, and was bailed out when Theo Pinson tipped the ball back to extend the possession. Berry was then fouled and headed to the charity stripe, where his first attempt bounced off the rim before Meeks came up with the game-saving rebound on the ensuing shot.
"I got down on myself when I missed the two free throws, because it definitely could have been good for us," said Meeks when recounting the sequence that helped the Tar Heels (32-7) advance to face Gonzaga for the national championship Monday. "But my main focus was if Joel missed the second free throw, hit the offensive glass hard, so I just tried to do that to the best of my ability. Jordan Bell kind of went in a little more than I thought he would, so I just got behind him and the ball fell in my hand."
Even with Meeks' double-double, the 13th of his season, and Justin Jackson's 22 points, UNC was nearly felled by its inability to convert a field goal attempt for the final 5:53 of regulation, nearly blowing a 10-point lead they had built earlier in the second half. It had been, up until the final minutes, a comeback effort for the Tar Heels, who had overcome a 3-for-17 start from the floor to take a 39-36 advantage into the locker room at halftime. UNC did not rest on its laurels from there, scoring seven of the first nine points after the intermission to complete a 14-2 run bridging the end of the opening stanza with the first 2:47 of the second half, going up by a score of 46-38 after a three-pointer by Jackson, one of four on the evening for the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. The two sides traded blows for the next several minutes before a Meeks layup, set up by a shrewd pass by Pinson following yet another missed free throw, put the Tar Heels ahead 66-56 with 8:32 to play.
Oregon (33-6) remained close despite not being able to truly capitalize on UNC's glut of missed opportunities, making free throws to negate a stretch of six minutes without a field goal before a Jordan Bell basket got the Ducks within four points, trailing 75-71 with 1:18 on the clock. The Midwest Regional champions were down six after two Pinson free throws before Tyler Dorsey provided his latest clutch moment, a three-pointer that rolled off the right side of the rim and into the net, cutting their deficit in half and turning what looked like a comfortable Tar Heel win just a few minutes prior into a one-possession affair with 46 seconds left in regulation.
Bell, who posted 13 points and 16 rebounds, came up with a key board on the ensuing possession, climbing the ladder to corral Pinson's missed jumper, which soon led to a Keith Smith basket to bring Oregon within one point. The Ducks could not get over the hump despite four missed UNC free throws, as Pinson and Meeks beat them to the ball to close out another roller-coaster win for last year's national runner-up.
"Their defense was better than our offense early," said head coach Roy Williams of Oregon's efforts, which were led on the offensive end by Dorsey's 21 points and 18 from Dylan Ennis. "But what helped us later was we started defending a little better ourselves, and then we could run out and play against their defense before we got set."
"The thing that's easy to say and easy to understand, we're relieved," he added. "We feel very lucky, feel very fortunate we're still playing, but the fact of the matter is we're still playing."
No thanks to their 6-foot-10 big man, who followed through on his guarantee to rise to the occasion.
"I kind of had it in the back of my mind," Meeks reiterated. "I just knew that we had to be aggressive in the paint. Coach told us it was going to be a man's game and us four big men had to do a great job on the inside. Isaiah (Hicks) wasn't making any shots, Luke (Maye) kind of got it going a little bit and then kind of took it away, so I took it upon myself to try to do the best I could to call for the ball."