In the final minutes of North Carolina’s 83-66 win over Syracuse, Kennedy Meeks jumped up and stuck a reverse lay-in in the basket. It wasn’t a particularly crucial bucket – it extended the Tar Heels’ lead to 15 – but it did represent a critical evolution in the big man’s play.
After UNC’s first-round win over Florida Gulf Coast, the Tar Heels were asked to explain why, exactly, Meeks didn’t jump under the basket. Brice Johnson had been visibly frustrated with Meeks in that game, and he was the one who pointed out Meeks’ habit of not leaving his feet. Coach Roy Williams was asked why Meeks doesn’t jump, and he didn’t mince words.
“I have no idea,” Williams said, “Because if I knew, I had already changed it.”
Now when Meeks gets the ball, there’s just one word going through his head.
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“Just try to think of it every time when I get the ball, jump, jump, jump,” said Meeks, who still had drops of sweat on his forehead, in the locker room after beating the Orange. “That’s what I did tonight.”
Meeks tied his NCAA-tournament high with 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting. He and Joel James played key first-half minutes, while Johnson sat with foul trouble, as the Tar Heels first built their lead. The score was knotted at 16-16 when Johnson went to the bench with two fouls and 9 minutes, 26 seconds left until halftime. But the Tar Heels went to the locker room with a 39-28 lead.
The plan for UNC’s big men was for them to stand at the foul line, in the high post, and operate from there. The Orange make entry passes into the high post by having the backside guard at the top of the 2-3 zone drop back in toward the middle. At the beginning of the game, the Tar Heels weren’t moving the ball quickly enough to get it into the middle. But even with their best big man on the bench, the Tar Heels started to solve the zone riddle in the first half.
Once the ball entered the middle, a second UNC big was down near the baseline. Both Meeks and James, who hit two first-half jump shots, also found success in the low post.
At one point in the second half, with the Tar Heels up 53-39, UNC had almost matched Syracuse’s point total in the paint alone with 38 points. UNC finished with 50 points in the paint, a critical advantage on a night when outside shots weren’t falling (4-of-17 from 3-point range).
Meeks could only think of one time he didn’t jump down near the basket – and that was on a play where he made the basket and drew a foul.
“The tournament has been a new life for him, honestly,” senior point guard Marcus Paige said of Meeks. “He’s exploding, he is getting more rebounds, he is being stronger with the ball around the basket, and that’s the Kennedy Meeks we need.”
Other than Johnson’s postgame frustration with Meeks in the opening round, Paige said teammates are largely supportive of the junior big man – because there is one person who rides him hard enough for everyone.
“Coach is probably on Kennedy harder than anybody on the team,” Paige said. “And I don’t even think it’s close. But the guys understand that, so we don’t really get on him. We just keep encouraging him. I told him on several occasions that there is going to be a time that we really need you, and we haven’t lost faith in you.”
In the Tar Heels’ past three games, Meeks has scored 15 points (Sweet 16 vs. Indiana), 10 (Elite Eight vs. Notre Dame) and 15 against the Orange to help send the Tar Heels to the national title game.
And come Monday night, Meeks will be repeating that one word over and over in his head.
“Just keeping it in the back of my mind,” he said, “That I have to jump every time.”