GLENDALE, Ariz. – They celebrated on the court briefly before the handshake-line formalities beckoned, and the North Carolina Tar Heels were ready for more after completing the long jog down the hallway to their locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium. Because there are only those fleeting moments to enjoy a Saturday victory at the Final Four before reality of the bigger game Monday night intrudes.
Instead of dancing or leaping for joy or boasting about how he just broke the Oregon frontcourt forest like a Tinker Toy in Carolina’s 77-76 victory, Kennedy Meeks began to apologize to his teammates for missing two free throws with fiveseconds left and putting the Tar Heels in jeopardy.
“He was like, ‘My bad for the free throws.’ I’m like ‘Bro, shut up! You just won us the game,’ ” senior guard Nate Britt said. "'Nobody cares about the free throws. We won. Just enjoy it. The free throw is in the past. People are going to ask you about it, but we don’t care. You —you got us the win.'”
This game always was going to be about Kennedy Meeks, especially after Oregon basically erased centers Mo Wagner of Michigan and Landen Lucas of Kansas from the two Ducks victories that delivered them to their first Final Four in 78 years. Those two capable big guys struggled terribly to deal with the electric athleticism of 6-9 Jordan Bell. Meeks, at times, did in this game.
Bell, though, struggled more with the fact Meeks is a big, powerful dude. Meeks delivered a career-best 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, including eight at the offensive end.
And, after he’d brickedthose two foul shots and been rescued by teammate Theo Pinson with an amazing tap-out of the second miss to point guard Joel Berry, Meeks bulldozed Bell to grab the second of Berry’s two errant free throws and fired the ball out to Pinson to dribble away the time that remained before the buzzer.
“He kind of pushed himself in a little bit more than he usually does, from what I’d seen playing against him earlier in the game,” Meeks said. “I just tried my hardest to bury him underneath the goal, because coach always tells us to expect the miss. So I did that, and the ball fell in my hand.”
Meeks and Pinson did not beat just anyone to those two rebounds. Bell produced five consecutive double-figure rebounding gamesin the NCAA Tournament, including a career-best 16 in this one. He had 11 of those in the second half.
On the last two of the Heels’ 17 offensive rebounds, though, Bell looked like a player who’d been drained of his strength by 35 minutes of collisions with Meeks and frontcourt partners Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley. Bell did not even jump on the first, as Pinson soared above him to meet the ball at the rim and slap it backward.
“I don’t think he thought I was going to crash,” Pinson said. “When he didn’t make contact with me at first, I thought, ‘OK, I can get a hand on it.’ I was high enough where I probably could have grabbed it, too, but at the same time I got the ball completely in my hand and literally hit it right to Joel when I turned my head. It was a perfect tip.”
Just before Berry went to the line to shoot his free throws, Oregon coach Dana Altman stomped his right foot hard on the court, loud enough to be heard above the crowd and capture Bell’s attention. “Block out!” Altman shouted.
Perhaps Bell was too eager, because he moved on the ball too soon, as Meeks saw it. That allowed Meeks to gain the leverage necessary to position himself to grab the rebound.
Bell was devastated afterward.
“There was a scrum there, and we didn’t come up with either one,” Altman said afterward. “So Jordan felt terrible. But I told him: I said, ‘Buddy, you got 16 rebounds. We wouldn’t have been in this position if it hadn’t been for you.’
“We had 5.8 seconds. We had time to get a look. And we just didn’t get it done.”
Altman was askedif the absence of regular center Chris Boucher affected Oregon in this game. And it probably did. However, the reinvention of the Ducks as a smaller, speed-based team is what helped them squeeze past Michigan and blow through favored Kansas. It didn’t work this time because of Meeks, as well as the brilliant two-way play of forward Justin Jackson.
Jackson scored 22 points and held Oregon’s “Mr. March,” Tyler Dorsey, to a trio of 3-point baskets. Dorsey had made an average of five 3-pointers in the past three tournament games. He scored 21 points here because he earned 12 free throws, but his struggle to find open threes spread to the rest of the Ducks. They were 7-of-26 from deep.
Carolina assured that its top two perimeter defenders, Jackson and Pinson, spent as much time as possible assigned to Dorsey and All-American Dillon Brooks, even if that meant a big man such as Meeks or Hicks wound up defending point guard Payton Pritchard. Brooks scored only 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting, which meant combined the two lead Ducks were 5-of-22 from the field.
So there was lots that went into the Tar Heels’ victory, but it came down to them winning because they rebounded their own missed free throws. That’s about the strangest way a team can win a game, which is why coach Roy Williams said, "We're relieved," as he began addressing the media.
“Oh, yeah. Hands down. Nobody wins a game like that,” Pinson said. “Well, I guess we do. But it was definitely the weirdest game. We don’t want to do that again.”
After Pinson dashed away from any adjacent Oregon defenders to avoid having to go through all that free throwing one more time, he threw the ball toward the roof of the stadium. As it landed, it nearly plastered a row of Nikons arrayed on the sideline above the press table. The ball bounced and rolled 20 feet, coming to rest just beyond the midcourt line. A security guard in his windbreaker came along to retrieve it. It was the about only rebound North Carolina did not grab, in the end.