GLENDALE, Ariz. – After how Kennedy Meeks carried North Carolina from beginning to end against Oregon on Saturday, it would have been a shame for his final moment in this national semifinal to be a pair of missed free throws with 5.8 seconds to play.
As it turned out, the Tar Heel senior had one final play left in his pocket, outworking Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Bell on the glass to pluck Joel Berry’s errant free throw out of the air before firing the ball out to Theo Pinson, who dribbled out the clock to secure UNC’s 77-76 win.
Meeks entered the Tar Heels’ locker room to a swarm of teammates and emphatic celebration, although it was the free throws that were lingering in his head as his first words were an apology for the misses. That may not have been the case three years ago, when Meeks was full of potential but whose immaturity and inconsistency often drove his head coach to headaches. His growth has been evident throughout his senior season, and it’s been near exponential in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet here he was, trying to apologize for a late miscue in arguably the best game of his college career.
“He was like, ‘my bad for the free throws,’” fellow senior Nate Britt told reporters after the win. “And I’m like, ‘bro, you just won us the game, shut up!’”
Meeks was the best player on the court for the second game in a row, matching his career high with 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting and grabbing 14 rebounds (eight offensive). Six days ago, the Charlotte, N.C. native dominated Kentucky on the glass (17 rebounds) and challenged the Wildcats at the rim (four blocks). Against the Ducks, Meeks did his work once again where his team needed him most, which this time was on the offensive end.
“We needed more offense from Kennedy tonight than we have a lot of games,” Roy Williams said, noting Isaiah Hicks and Joel Berry combined to shoot 3-of-26 from the floor. “And I think he stepped up and did that. I just thought he was just sensational around the basket, not only on the offensive boards but on the defensive boards both.”
Nearly a year removed from a disappointing national championship game performance (4 points on 1-of-8 shooting and seven rebounds), Meeks has been a force in leading UNC back to the final Monday night of the season. In five NCAA Tournament games, he’s averaging 13.2 points on 64.9 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.4 steals.
His versatility in allowing the game to determine his role has been a learned trait. There’s more to production than scoring points, although understanding that truth of basketball is not a simple matter.
“It takes you a long time to really get over that you don't have to score to be effective, you don't have to shoot all the shots to be effective,” Meeks said. “You can do other things, rebounding… So I just took it upon myself to do the best job I could, whether that was me having a great defensive game, scoring the ball when I can, or getting all the rebounds.”
This Tar Heel squad is more perimeter-oriented than most any Williams has put on the floor in his 29 years as a head coach, yet his system is built on a strong presence in the post. When UNC won the 2005 national championship, it was Sean May who won the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player award by averaging 24 points and 8.5 rebounds in St. Louis. Four years later, Tyler Hansbrough averaged 18 points and nine rebounds in the Final Four in Detroit to help Williams win his second title.
Meeks may not be the offensive presence either of those two were, but he’s been equally important to UNC’s charge to the national championship game and that will continue on Monday against a Gonzaga team that boasts a pair of quality bigs in Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins.
Meeks dismissed questions about his elevated tournament play, offering answers that focused more on how his teammates’ contributions yielded his stat line. Long gone are the days of moody postgame interviews and complete disappearing acts on the court. In their place is a veteran intent on being a foundational rock in the final days as a Tar Heel.
“I think that’s a part of him being a senior and showing some leadership, as well as knowing that this is his last go-around,” Britt said. “Kennedy’s done a great job of taking it upon himself to play every game like it could be his last game.”
For the first time in his career, Meeks knows that his next game as a Tar Heel will be his last. He may as well play like it.