North Carolina

UNC’s Kennedy Meeks breaks through against Hoosiers

North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks, left, drives to the basket against Indiana’s Thomas Bryant on Friday.
North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks, left, drives to the basket against Indiana’s Thomas Bryant on Friday. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Maybe it was the matchup. Maybe it was the right frame of mind.

There was no maybe, though, about Kennedy Meeks’ effectiveness in North Carolina’s 101-86 rout of Indiana on Friday night.

Meeks scored 15 points – his most since delivering 23 in a Jan. 16 defeat of N.C. State – to help the top-seeded Tar Heels (31-6) turn back the fifth-seeded Hoosiers (27-8) in the East regional semifinal at the Wells Fargo Center.

“I was just being more aggressive, jumping, being more explosive, going into these last couple days of practice with the right mindset as far as not worrying about how bad I’ve been playing,” Meeks said. “I just focused on the games I can take advantage of. Tonight was one of those games where I could be aggressive with the one-on-ones and everything fell in favor for me.”

It was arguably overdue.

Meeks had six double-digit scoring games in North Carolina’s first seven contests, but was not nearly as significant a scoring threat since returning from a left knee injury in early January. The junior forward had only four games of at least 10 points against ACC opponents, and mustered just 21 points in five games since the start of the conference tournament.

His nine rebounds against the Hoosiers were his second most since coming back from the injury, behind only the 14 he grabbed at Duke on a night nearly everyone of the Tar Heels’ roster rebounded well. But perhaps most tellingly, his 29 minutes were his most since his high-scoring showing against N.C. State more than two months ago.

His 5-for-9 shooting helped keep him on the floor. So did Indiana’s relatively conventional lineup.

“The last couple of games probably weren’t good games for him to play in,” forward Brice Johnson said. “You have guys like (Providence’s Ben) Bentil running around off screens and you have a lot of guys from Florida Gulf Coast – essentially a lot of guards running around. Those aren’t really games we want him out there because they space the floor. Tonight you guys like Thomas Bryant who really doesn’t go out there and shoot 3s, and that’s a lot better matchup for him.”

It was especially needed on a night junior Isaiah Hicks meandered into early foul trouble and never established himself. Hicks fouled out in only seven minutes and finished with four points.

Hicks sensed throughout Friday that Meeks had a different energy level about him and was engaged to play. He turned out to be right, from Meeks trying a jumper on the Tar Heels’ first possession to his continued aggression throughout the game.

“Everybody was in here joking ‘We’ve finally seen Kennedy jump off the ground,’” Hicks said. “Coach even said he could finally put three pieces of paper under his shoes.”

An invigorated Meeks could help North Carolina in Sunday’s regional final against sixth-seeded Notre Dame (24-11). Meeks averaged 9.5 points, three rebounds and 16.5 minutes in two meetings with the Fighting Irish as he sought a breakthrough – one he knew would eventually come.

“It was going to happen sooner or later,” Meeks said. “I didn’t know when, but the main focus for me is keep playing as aggressive as I can and continuing to think things will fall in my favor.”

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