USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken recaps the two Final Four semifinal games, won in nail-biters by Gonzaga and North Carolina.
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The realization hit Kennedy Meeks — hard — in the Sweet 16. If he didn’t start stepping up, North Carolina would lose. Maybe that game, maybe the next.
Either way, the Tar Heels would be done.
And his college career would be over.
“I know it might have been too late, but I kind of realized that during the Butler game when coach got on me for not boxing out, and I sat out for a couple of minutes,” Meeks said Saturday night. “And I just knew that it’s important for me to do so, just to help my team out in any way I can.”
The lesson might have been learned late, but it was learned well. North Carolina will play for the national title for the second year in a row Monday thanks in large part to the Tar Heels’ big man.
He matched his career-high with 25 points — on 11-for-13 shooting, no less — and had three steals and a block. But it was his efforts on the glass where he made the biggest impact. He had 14 rebounds, including eight on the offensive glass, and none was bigger than his last.
The Tar Heels missed four free throws in a row in the last five seconds. Theo Pinson got the rebound after the first two misses, kicking it back out to Joel Berry II, who was immediately fouled. Berry missed his, too, but Meeks was there to swallow up the ball, allowing North Carolina to run out the clock on a 77-76 victory.
“He was just sensational around the basket, not only on the offensive boards but on the defensive boards both,” coach Roy Williams said. “I’m sure he’s got tremendous focus as a senior and he wants to keep playing. But so do the other guys and so do the other teams.
“A lot of times it’s just, `Are you playing well?’ and that was one specific night.”
But it’s not just about having a good night. It’s about having that good night on the right night.
The play of North Carolina’s big men was going to be critical against Oregon, which has a handful in Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell. But Isaiah Hicks was awful – no, really, he was. Hicks was 1-for-12 for the night, and had just three rebounds.
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was no fan of the team’s missed free throws in the final minute of the their national semifinal against Oregon, but Williams is happy UNC has found its way back to national title game.
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And Justin Jackson aside, the rest of the Tar Heels’ starting lineup wasn’t a whole lot better. Joel Berry II was 2-for-14 — though he gets some slack because he’s playing on two sprained ankles — and Pinson was 2-for-8.
“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. You can do other things, rebounding,” Meeks said. “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.”
Or, on this night, all of the above.
Meeks became just the fifth player in the last 40 years with at least 25 points and 14 rebounds in the Final Four. A nice little stat that becomes all the more impressive when you see the names of the other four who did it: Carmelo Anthony, Ed O’Bannon, Danny Manning and Larry Bird.
Of that group, Bird is the only one who didn’t win the national title.
“Feel very lucky but that’s OK,” Williams said. “We’re still one of the two teams playing on Monday night.”
Meeks’ revelation might have come late in the game, but not too late to ensure North Carolina has one more game to play.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FINAL FOUR