GLENDALE, Ariz. – North Carolina has spent the last 362 days working to get back to the final Monday night of the college basketball season, pairing late nights in the gym with long hours in the weight room. All of that work came to fruition on Saturday as the Tar Heels topped Oregon, 77-76, in the Final Four.
“Our dream and our goal was to make it back to this point and hopefully win,” ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson said after the win. “So at the end of the day, the road’s not over for us. We’ve still got one more game, but you’ve still got to enjoy it a little bit.”
Kennedy Meeks continued his NCAA Tournament dominance, matching his career-high with 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting and grabbing 14 rebounds, while Jackson added 22 points, scoring 13 after halftime. UNC led 39-36 at halftime and never trailed in the second half, despite failing to convert a field goal attempt in the final 5:53 and missing four free throws in the final 5.8 seconds.
Meeks was UNC’s lone hot hand in the first half, scoring 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting. The Tar Heels missed 14 of their first 17 field goal attempts in falling behind by eight points, and shot just 36.8 percent for the game, which is their lowest field goal percentage in an NCAA Tournament win since shooting 35.9 percent against Princeton on March 17, 1967.
UNC locked down first-team Pac-12 forward Dillon Brooks, who fouled out after scoring 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting. The Ducks shot 37.9 percent from the floor.
Offensive Boards Keep UNC’s Season Alive
The offensive glass was expected to be a determining factor in the second of Saturday’s national semifinals, and that played out in the game’s final 5.8 seconds. After Meeks missed a pair of free throws, Theo Pinson tipped the loose ball out to Joel Berry, who was promptly fouled. Berry also missed both free throws, but Meeks was there yet again for the offensive rebound, securing UNC’s victory.
The Tar Heels scored 19 points off 17 offensive rebounds.
Roy Williams has told his players countless times that he’s never had a team make a deep run without playing great defense. In five NCAA Tournament games, UNC is allowing its opponents to shoot 40.7 percent from the floor and 30.6 percent from the 3-point line.
"I've been begging and pleading and cajoling and kicking and stomping and screaming, trying to get them better defensively," Williams said. "And I thought in the second half today we were better defensively than we have been in quite a while."
Britt Provides Early Spark
UNC faced its largest deficit of the NCAA Tournament after Dylan Ennis made back-to-back corner threes to push Oregon’s lead to 30-22 with 4:08 to play before halftime. Nate Britt checked in 25 seconds later and provided a veteran lift.
The senior point guard, playing in his 150th career game as a Tar Heel, drove through Oregon’s matchup zone and found Isaiah Hicks for a towering dunk to cut the deficit in half. He then knocked down a 3-pointer from the right wing to pull UNC to within one, grabbed a defensive rebound on the other end and once again sliced through the Ducks’ defense to find Meeks for a layup and a 37-36 lead.
UNC closed the first half on a 17-6 spurt.
Oregon entered its first Final Four in 78 years as a team known for taking care of the ball. The Ducks ranked 67th nationally in turnover percentage (16.9) and were averaging 11 turnovers per game in the NCAA Tournament.
Dana Altman’s squad turned the ball over 12 times in the first half alone. UNC scored 20 points off 16 Oregon turnovers.
Berry’s Shooting Woes Continue
Joel Berry, who has sprained both ankles during the NCAA Tournament, has struggled scoring the ball without his typical lift. The junior point guard had a promising start, connecting on a 3-pointer on UNC’s opening possession, but then missed his next eight field goal attempts.
"I'm not playing at 100 percent right now," Berry told reporters in the UNC locker room. "I'm still battling the injuries, but the biggest thing is that I'm going to keep shooting. I know I have to get a lift on my shot. I've just got to think about it a little bit more when I'm shooting. Right now I'm a little sore, but we've got a day to rest and to get back focused, and then Monday, I'll be fine."
Berry finished with 11 points on 2-of-14 shooting (2-of-8 3FG). He is shooting 28.3 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent from long range in five NCAA Tournament games.
Heels Banged Up
Berry was already playing with two bad wheels before the game tip, and Pinson joined the injury watch list after he banged knees with a Duck in the first half. He left the court with athletic trainer Doug Halverson but returned to the game several minutes later.
Hicks subbed himself out of the game early in the second half and was diagnosed with a left quad contusion. After some sideline stretching, he also returned to the game.
UNC will play Gonzaga for the national championship at 9:19 p.m. ET on Monday.