During the final 5.8 seconds on Saturday night, with North Carolina clinging to a one-point lead against Oregon in an NCAA tournament national semifinal, Kennedy Meeks was talking to himself and Joel Berry was thinking he couldn’t miss and Theo Pinson was stunned, bewildered.
“Can we make one?” Pinson said he was thinking, again and again, while one missed free throw turned into two misses, and then three, and then four, when Berry’s second attempt bounced off the left side of the rim with four seconds remaining.
At that moment, the Tar Heels had missed four consecutive free throws in the final six seconds. They had kept alive Oregon’s hope of completing a stunning comeback. Something that seemed unfathomable minutes earlier appeared possible: UNC’s season could again end in anguish and agony for the second consecutive year.
It might have, too, if not for two offensive rebounds in the final 5.8 seconds. Pinson secured the first, after Meeks missed the second of his two free throws. Meeks secured the second, after Berry missed the second of his two free throws. And then the ball wound up in Pinson’s hands.
He dribbled it five times and then threw it high above the court inside the cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium. The Tar Heels prevailed – a 77-76 victory over the Ducks that sends them into the national championship game for the 11th time in school history.
UNC, the top seed in the South Region, will play Gonzaga, the top seed in the West, on Monday night at 9:20. The Tar Heels, driven by a season-long quest of redemption, are back in the national championship game for the second consecutive year.
Everyone remembers how the last one ended: Marcus Paige’s improbable shot with 4.7 seconds remaining to tie Villanova at 74. And then Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer to win it at the buzzer, sending the Tar Heels back to their locker room, heartbroken, while the confetti streamed down.
More than one UNC player thought about that moment on Saturday night. The Tar Heels led by 10 points with 8 ½ minutes remaining. Then, inexplicably, their offense sputtered and they began missing shots, and they began playing with passiveness, instead of aggression.
“And we didn’t do a good job of just continuing to attack them,” Berry said. “We did a horrible job of that.”
It was a one-point game in the final seconds, the Tar Heels unable to make a shot from the field and unable to make one from the free-throw line, either. All Oregon needed was a possession to either tie or take the lead.
UNC has been the best offensive rebounding team in college basketball this season. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and their ability to secure misses was never more important than it was in the final seconds on Saturday night, a national championship game appearance at stake.
First came the free throws Meeks missed. He played brilliantly otherwise – 25 points and 14 rebounds, and it was arguably his best game in his four seasons at UNC. He stepped to the free-throw line with 5.8 seconds remaining with a chance to set a career scoring high.
“I work so hard to work every practice to make as many free throws I can before we leave,” he said.
His first attempt, though, was short, off the front rim, and in that moment Pinson’s instincts told him that it could happen again – that Meeks could be short. Pinson knew that, he said, because usually it’s easier for a shooter to correct a free throw that sails too long than one that doesn’t go far enough.
And so Meeks released his second attempt. Short again.
“I guess he didn’t think I was going to go for it,” Pinson said of Jordan Bell, the Oregon forward who was helpless to stop Pinson from getting his hand on Meeks’ second miss. “And I just got a firm hand on it, I just threw it right to Joel. It was sort of a tip-out, but it was literally a throw to him.”
UNC had life again: possession and a one-point lead with the clock running. Oregon immediately fouled, sending Berry to the line.
Entering Saturday night Berry had made 80.8 percent of his free throws. Nobody on the team had made a greater percentage. If UNC could have chosen anybody to step to the free-throw line in the final seconds of a close game, it would have been Berry.
Now here he was. If he’d made both, Oregon would have needed to make a 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.
“Joel, our best free-throw shooter comes up – all right, that’s an automatic two,” said Justin Jackson, the junior forward who scored 13 of his 22 points in the second half.
This time, it was not an automatic two. Berry’s first attempt bounced off to the right. His second bounced off to the left. All the while, those cheering for UNC stood in a stunned, ominous silence. Some put their hands on their heads. They stood in dreadful anticipation of what might go wrong next.
The Tar Heels practice for these moments, though. They practice for these moments often, Meeks said, though it’s difficult to practice free-throw rebounding – or any rebounding, for that matter – given the unpredictability of the bounces.
Nonetheless, UNC coach Roy Williams tells his players all the time: The only person who should expect a free throw to go in is the one attempting it. Everyone else should be expecting a miss and preparing to rebound.
And so that’s what Meeks was thinking before Berry released his second attempt: Meeks was thinking that it’d miss, and he was preparing to position himself. He was next to Bell, the Oregon forward who allowed Pinson the rebound after Meeks’ miss, and Meeks earlier had made a point to remember one of Bell’s tendencies.
“I saw him bite a couple of times early on the other free throws,” Meeks said. “So I just tried to bury him. Coach always says, ‘expect a miss,’ so I did. And the ball fell in my hand.”
And then it was out of his hands, back to Pinson outside the top of the key. He took five dribbles.
He threw the ball high into the air after the horn sounded. The Tar Heels, who didn’t make a shot from the field in a span of nearly six minutes at the end, were off to the national championship game. The Tar Heels, who nearly surrendered a 10-point lead with 8 ½ minutes to play, advanced to the final Monday night for the second consecutive season.
More than once late on Saturday night, Williams spoke of luck. He spoke of his team’s good fortune.
“But that’s OK,” Williams said of those things. “Doesn’t make any difference – we’re still one of the two teams playing on Monday night.”
This was the kind of victory that can cause coaches to age beyond their years. Pinson, though, believed Williams would look back on the ending with fondness, and that he might draw on it the way Williams draws on so much other history with his current group of players.
In years to come, Williams might well find himself describing what UNC experienced on Saturday: a dwindling lead, the pressure mounting, the shots clanking off the rim, one after the other. Williams might find himself describing four missed free throws, and the will and skill to secure two of those misses.
“I think coach will definitely, when we’re gone, will tell that story,” Pinson said. “Because that just shows how big offensive rebounding is – boxing out at the end of the game. And I’m sure they wish they boxed out right there.”
Oregon wished it had. Several Oregon players crumpled to the floor when it ended. All the Ducks needed was one final possession, one final shot. Given the sequence of events in the final minutes, the odds appeared in the Ducks’ favor. They received the help they needed in the form of UNC’s missed free throws.
But the Tar Heels secured those misses. First Pinson. And then Meeks, who passed out to Pinson.
“Exhilarating,” Jackson said, asked to describe the final moments in a word. “We’ll say exhilarating.”
He described the misses, the rebounds, Meeks grabbing the game’s final miss – UNC’s final offensive rebound against the shorter Ducks. It was the most important play of what was likely Meeks’ best game, and then the Tar Heels were off to the final Monday night, back again in the national championship game.
UNC vs. Gonzaga
When: 9:20 p.m. Monday
Where: Glendale, Ariz.