North Carolina has waited all year for this chance.
The Tar Heels, with superb performances by senior forward Kennedy Meeks and junior wing Justin Jackson, are back in the national title game after a 77-76 win over Oregon on Saturday in the Final Four.
UNC lost in the national title game to Villanova last year, on a Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer at the buzzer. Meeks (25 points and 14 rebounds) and Jackson (22 points) have given the Tar Heels a shot at redemption on Monday in the title game against Gonzaga.
Meeks, who made 11 of 13 field goals, was nearly unstoppable against a smaller Oregon lineup who couldn’t keep him off the glass.
Meeks missed two free throws with 5.8 seconds left but an offensive rebound by Theo Pinson iced the game for the Tar Heels (32-7), who reached the championship game for the fourth time under coach Roy Williams.
Even good plays by Oregon, who went 3 of 18 from the 3-point line in the second half, turned into breaks for the Tar Heels. Oregon guard Dylan Ennis (18 points) blocked a shot by Meeks but the loose ball was controlled by UNC guard Joel Berry, who knocked down an open 3 for a 71-62 lead at 5:54.
While UNC’s stars have shone, Oregon’s best players have struggled from the floor. Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey went a combined 4 of 20 from the floor. Dorsey did make all 12 of his free throws to finish with 21 points.
UNC has tried all season — really since Jenkins’ 3 lifted Villanova to a last-second win in the 2016 national title game — to get back to this point and make the most of its second chance.
Kennedy Meeks is taking over and Oregon has no answer for him.
The North Carolina senior forward has the Tar Heels out to a 46-38 lead and they are threatening to pull away from the Ducks.
Meeks has made 8 of 9 field goals and has six offensive rebounds. He leads UNC with 18 points and Oregon coach Dana Altman called a timeout in front of the first media break of the second half to try to keep this game from getting out of reach.
Move over Luke Maye, it’s Nate Britt’s turn.
North Carolina’s bench helped them get into the Final Four and Britt is trying to push the Tar Heels back into the national title game.
Oregon led 30-22, the largest deficit of the tournament for UNC, before Britt led a late first-half run to give the Heels a 39-36 halftime lead.
Britt’s 3-pointer gave UNC a 36-35 lead at 1:28 and then he took a defensive rebound the length of the floor to set up senior forward Kennedy Meeks for an easy layup.
After starting the half just 6 of 23 from the floor, the Heels made 8 of their last 12 shots to close the half on a 17-6 run.
Maye, the hero of the 75-73 regional final win over Kentucky, has struggled with foul trouble and Joel Berry, five points, hasn’t quite been 100 percent with two sore ankles.
But Meeks (14 points) has been strong inside and Justin Jackson (nine points) has recovered from a slow start.
This game hasn’t made a ton of sense so far. Oregon, the smaller team, is out-rebounding UNC (18 to 14), the top rebounding team in the country.
Oregon’s top two scorers — Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey — didn’t scratch in the first 13 minutes of the game. And the Ducks have turned the ball over eight times.
Yet, at the under-4 timeout, it’s Oregon with a 30-22 lead.
That’s because Dylan Ennis (see subplot below) has buried back-to-back 3-pointers.
One development that could sink the Ducks: forward Jordan Bell turned his right ankle going up for a rebound at 5:27. Bell is really the Ducks only true forward.
Eight turnovers now for Oregon but UNC can’t find the basket (6 of 23). The Ducks are doing a good job mixing up a zone but going back to man after made baskets.
UNC finally took Bill Raftery’s pregame advice and got the ball inside to Kennedy Meeks for an inside bucket and a brief 18-17 lead. The Ducks answered with an open 3 from Casey Benson and then went with the Duke playbook and isolated Meeks in the pick-and-roll to get Jordan Bell to the foul line.
Ducks are up 20-18 at the under-8 timeout.
Interesting subplot: Ennis finally gets a chance at UNC in the Final Four. Ennis was a key cog for Villanova in 2015 but graduated and transferred to Oregon before last season. Obviously, he missed out on Villanova’s national title. He also missed out on the 2015-16 season, with a foot injury, and needed a sixth-year waiver from the NCAA.
The Tar Heels have four early offensive rebounds (as usual) and have forced six early turnovers but haven’t been able to open up a lead.
Joel Berry, who looks no worse for the wear with two bum ankles, made his first 3-pointer but the Heels have started just 3 of 16 from the floor.
Jordan Bell, Oregon’s lone big, has been active early, too. Bell, who had eight blocked shots in Oregon’s regional final upset of Kansas, has two blocks already, including a rejection of UNC forward Isaiah Hicks on what looked like an open layup.
The game is tied at 11 at the under-12 timeout.
CBS’ Grant Hill gives us some generic “keys” to the game but leave it to Raftery to boil it down succinctly.
“Go inside,” was Raftery’s advice for UNC. “Give a little dessert to the big fellas.”
Raftery’s right. This game will be decided by UNC’s ability to take advantage of an Oregon team missing injured big man Chris Boucher. If Oregon makes Carolina play the Ducks’ style, the Heels could be in trouble, even with the Heels’ defense clicking on a high level.
The early advantage also to UNC, a 4.5-point favorite, and not for any personnel reason. The Ducks are in their everyday, garden-variety “Green” uniforms. They are just 2-1 in these relatively tame Nike specials.
Perhaps an early mistake by the Oregon equipment guy. Dana Altman’s team is 8-1 in its “Fighting Ducks” uniforms.
One other pre-game point to watch: regular ACC official Ron Groover worked UNC’s ACC tournament loss to Duke when the game turned with Joel Berry’s second-half foul trouble.