Kennedy Meeks would not be denied. No way. Not even with Isaiah Hicks struggling and his teammates’ shots not falling. He would get his shot at redemption, no matter what it took.
It’s impossible to say that Meeks took last year’s loss to Villanova harder than anyone, but no one took it harder than him. He was a puddle afterward, inconsolable, his despair only heightened by a 1-for-8 performance from the floor in a game where the margin of victory was as thin as it gets.
Back on this biggest of stages, Meeks made sure he would have another chance. He made sure the Tar Heels would get another chance, almost personally willing North Carolina to a 77-76 win over Oregon on Saturday, a game North Carolina somehow managed to win despite not making a basket over the final five minutes and missing four free throws in the final six seconds.
Meeks was a force underneath the rim, dunking, rebounding, laying the ball in, asking questions the Ducks couldn’t answer. Even when he missed a pair of critical free throws with 5.8 seconds to play, he got the game’s final rebound to seal the win, his 14th rebound of the game to go with 25 points – tying a career-high – on 11-for-13 shooting.
Only four other players have gone for 25 and 14 in a Final Four game in the last 40 years, and it’s an elite group that Meeks joined Saturday night: Carmelo Anthony, Ed O’Bannon, Danny Manning and Larry Bird. Not bad for a guy who had to battle to lose weight, played through injuries this season and promised, for months, to make amends for his performance in the Villanova game, if given the chance.
“I just think the kid is living in the moment,” said North Carolina staffer Sean May, who came close to joining that club with 26 and 10 in the 2005 title game. “He realizes this is his senior year, this is it. To have a game like he did tonight, on the biggest stage, playing the best basketball of his career, it truly is amazing. Because he’s been through some things to stick it out here, and Coach, he’s rode him. I’ll tell you, he’s rode him. For him to have a night like he did tonight, it’s pretty amazing.”
And did the Tar Heels ever need Meeks. Joel Berry, clearly slowed by his sprained ankles, was ineffective. Hicks continued to struggle, picking up a thigh contusion as well early in the second half. North Carolina players not named Meeks or Justin Jackson were a combined 8-for-42. The Tar Heels had relied all season on an array of weapons, but too many were misfiring Saturday against Oregon’s matchup zone.
But that zone, with Oregon’s dynamic big man Jordan Bell roaming inside, opened up just enough to let Meeks flex his muscle. Which he did.
“Jordan Bell tried to block literally everything,” Berry said. “There was stuff up there by the shot clock he was trying to block. It just left a wide-open lane for Kennedy to run to the basket. As you can see, on the season, we haven’t had a lot of putback dunks, but Kennedy got one tonight. That just goes to show, when he saw his man going to make a block, he just tried to get downhill to the offensive rebound.”
When the Tar Heels needed a big shot from someone else, Jackson was there, creating an amazing array of impossible shots on his way to 22 points, but Meeks was their motor. There was no finesse in his game. It was muscle, will, grit, 12 months of frustrated emotion spilling out onto the court.
All to get back to this moment: Monday night, against Gonzaga, for a national championship. The Carolina Bluest of blue bloods against the original mid-major, even if the Zags long ago departed that plane of basketball existence.
North Carolina has spent 51 weeks lamenting the opportunity it let slip away last April. The Tar Heels believed they could make it back to get another chance, another shot. Whatever happens Monday, they have done that, at least. And redemption, to use their word, is right around the corner.
“It’s an amazing thing,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “And 351 teams start playing, and this is the second year in a row we were one of two left.”
For a while in the first half, it all seemed to be slipping away already. North Carolina’s offense had struggled from the start, and Oregon started banging in shots and ran its lead to eight with four minutes to go in the first half.
All the momentum was with the Ducks, and other than Meeks, not much seemed to be working for the Tar Heels until North Carolina outscored Oregon 11-4 to finish out the half, getting a boost from an unexpected source. Nate Britt had a miserable game against Kentucky, but he was huge in that stretch, hitting a 3-pointer, getting a hand in Tyler Dorsey’s face to contest his 3-point attempt, turning to get that rebound and feeding Meeks at the other end.
Jackson finished the run with a sideways-moving, baseline half-floater-half-hook, creating something out of nothing at an NBA level. Somehow, with everyone other than Meeks combining to go 8-for-28 from the floor, the Tar Heels led by three at the half.
They would lead the entire second half, even if it wasn’t easy, fouling too much, still struggling to get anyone but Meeks and Jackson going. They let it come down to the very final seconds, up one. Meeks and Berry each missed a pair of free throws before, after Berry’s second miss, Meeks outfought Bell to grab the final rebound to seal the win, and Jackson wrapped his arms around him.
“I told him I was proud of him,” Jackson said. “He’s done whatever he possibly can to help the team win.”
Meeks, who felt the Villanova loss as deeply as anyone, did as much as anyone to drag North Carolina into this position. Redemption, so long sought, is now within reach.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock