By Colton Bennett
Sports Capital Journalism Program
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Kennedy Meeks saved the season for North Carolina. Right after nearly losing it.
In the final breathless seconds of a game that could end his team’s season, after four straight missed free throws – two by Meeks — with the Tar Heel lead down to a single point, he grabbed an offensive rebound and threw it to Theo Pinson to preserve a 77-76 victory over Oregon.
North Carolina (32-7) will meet Gonzaga Monday evening after reaching back-to-back NCAA finals for the second time in school history. A year ago, a buzzer-beater by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins left the Tar Heels and their fans in shock and sadness. Meeks’ powerful resourcefulness gave his team a chance for a different ending.
Oregon (33-6) was led by sophomore Tyler Dorsey, who scored 21 points but was held to 3-of-11 shooting. Senior Dylan Ennis scored 18 points, and junior Jordan Bell had 13 with 16 rebounds.
But it was the two rebounds that Bell could not reach that left him in tears and ended Oregon’s deepest NCAA tournament run since the 1939 team won the inaugural national championship. That championship game was played before a crowd of 5,500 in Evanston, Ill. The crowd of 77,612 at University of Phoenix Stadium was the second largest for the national semifinals.
Meeks dominated the paint for all 30 minutes he spent on the floor. The 6-10 senior matched a career high with 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting. He had 14 rebounds, eight of which were on the offensive end. The Ducks simply had no answer for him whenever he was on the floor, all the way into the hectic final 5.8 seconds.
After a layup by Oregon freshman Keith Smith with 6.4 seconds to cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 77-76, Meeks received the inbound pass and was immediately fouled by Dorsey. After Meeks left the first free throw short, junior guard Theo Pinson knew exactly what he needed to do if the second one ended up the same way.
Get a hand on it.
“We practice a little bit…” Pinson said in the locker room. “We know that’s what we’re supposed to do. We need to keep doing it ‘cause it won this game.”
The madness did not end after Pinson tipped the ball to junior Joel Berry II, who secured the miss. Berry II, an 80.8 percent free throw shooter this season, went up to the stripe and missed his first free throw. Then his second.
That is where Meeks comes back into play. He muscled Bell out of position under the basket and grabbed the rebound. Meeks threw it out to Pinson, who retreated toward midcourt, allowed the seconds to slip away, and threw the ball toward the roof. Meeks knew he had to redeem himself, to make up for his misfortune at the free throw line.
“…My main focus was if Joel missed the second free throw, hit the offensive glass hard,” Meeks said, “because I know earlier in the game I didn’t hit the glass, and I looked over at Coach and he kind of gave me the motion that – hit the offensive glass. So I just tried to do that to the best of my ability.”
The common denominator for both of North Carolina’s final offensive rebounds was Bell. When the media was allowed into the Oregon locker room, Bell was leaning as far back in his locker as he possibly could. He was still wearing his jersey and had tears in his eyes. Bell could manage little more than a whisper when describing the final moments to the dozen or so reporters.
“They just out toughed me,” he said. “They just took it from me.”
Bell had done everything he could against the massive and deep Carolina front line. But with 6-10 senior Chris Boucher unavailable because of a season-ending knee injury and 6-11 junior reserve Kavell Bigby-Williams the only other Oregon player bigger than 6-7 that entered the game, there was only so much Bell could do.
“Right now, he’s gonna believe that it’s in his head,” Dorsey said. “But it’ll heal. It’ll get better. He knows that we need him, and that he didn’t lose us that game. It was everybody. It was a team effort. Everybody could’ve done more. We just came up one point short. North Carolina’s a good team.”
Tar Heel coach Roy Williams would rather have seen his players knock down their free throws. When asked what crossed his mind when he watched four consecutive missed free throws in the final seconds, Williams said, with a laugh, “Oh, jump off the building, something like that.”
With North Carolina set to face off with Gonzaga on Monday, Meeks and his fellow bigs will need to continue to be on their game in order to handle Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins. One last challenge of what could become a championship season.
“Coach told us it was going to be a man’s game,” Meeks said, “and us four big men had to do a great job on the inside.”