USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken recaps the two Final Four semifinal games, won in nail-biters by Gonzaga and North Carolina.
USA TODAY Sports
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Only 40 minutes of action now separate the North Carolina men’s basketball team from what eluded it a year ago: A national championship.
All season, these Tar Heels — most of whom were part of last year’s team, the one that lost the title on an unbelievable buzzer-beater by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins — have talked about getting back here, back to the title game, back to the spot they fell just short of. In order to avenge a loss, you have to get back in position to have a chance to do it, after all.
North Carolina withstood a long stretch of poor shooting in the first half in which it trailed by as many as eight points and a second-half push by Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis to beat Oregon 77-76 in the second of two national semifinal games Saturday night. The Tar Heels missed four consecutive free throws in the closing seconds but won the game with two season-saving offensive rebounds, first by Theo Pinson, who tipped the ball out to Joel Berry II who was promptly fouled, and then by Kennedy Meeks, that eventually ran out the time on the clock to secure the victory.
BOX SCORE: Tar Heels 77, Ducks 76
“The thing that’s easy to say and easy to understand is we’re relieved,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We feel very lucky. We feel very fortunate we’re still playing — but the fact of the matter is we’re still playing. … We missed a bunch of free throws. We talk and work on little things all the time. I tell them if you line up on the rebound spot, when your teammate is shooting the free throw, you’re trying to rebound. You’re either trying to tip it out or get a rebound.
“We do work on those things. We do talk about those things. But feel very lucky but that’s OK. It doesn’t make any difference; we’re still one of the two teams playing on Monday night.”
The Tar Heels will face fellow No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Monday night in the national championship game. Monday will be Williams’ 100th time coaching a game in the NCAA tournament as a head coach. He’ll be shooting for his third national title.
And this group of players, so devastated a season ago, are shooting for redemption. They’ve spent 12 months thinking about The Shot, seeing highlights of The Shot and trying to use The Shot to motivate them for this run. A group chat that includes every player on the roster was named “Redemption” late last summer — literally — as preseason workouts began, so it could serve as a daily reminder of what this 2016-17 season was about.
“The way that last year ended, meaning the final shot that we lost the national championship game, I’m hoping that motivated them,” Williams said earlier this NCAA tournament. “We talked about it providing some motivation or fuel to work extremely hard in the offseason. And then when practice started, I said, it’s motivation for that reason and it’s motivation because what we did last year was great.
“Everybody in the country would have loved to have done what we did last year. There was only one team that enjoyed it more than we did. So I think just for me, talking to the kids and reminding them how much fun it was last year, let’s try to do that again.
“I do try to remind them how much fun we had last year also, not just the hurt of the last shot.”
Jenkins, whose shot destroyed the Tar Heels almost exactly one year ago to date, sat in the first row of the North Carolina cheering section, alongside the parents he considers family, rooting for Nate Britt, who he considers a brother. Jenkins said he wasn’t nervous.
“I’ve got my national championship,” Jenkins said at halftime. “Now I want my brother to get one.”
Britt was an integral piece of North Carolina’s Final Four win, providing the Tar Heels with a spark off the bench late in the first half — making a key three-pointer followed by a defensive stop and an assist on a Meeks layup.
But the heaviest of workloads Saturday night was carried by Meeks and Justin Jackson, who have carried heavy loads for this team at various points through the season. Meeks had his best game of the season, scoring 25 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in one of the most impressive individual performances of this NCAA tournament in the face of a shot-blocking menace in Oregon’s Jordan Bell. Jackson added 22 points of his own, including four three-pointers that helped the Tar Heels build and hang onto their second-half lead.
Two bum ankles didn’t stop point guard Berry from playing significant minutes, though his 2-for-14 shooting performance suggests he’s not playing fully healthy. Still, though, there was no way he’d leave his teammates hanging in a game of this magnitude, playing with both ankles wrapped. Williams said after the game he was thrilled Berry was able to get through the game, even if he didn’t play all that well.
These Tar Heels will need him Monday as they try to finish off a mission they started a year ago — even if it’s a slightly different roster going up against a drastically different opponent with the championship at stake.
“You’re always going to have that in the back of your mind because it was a heartbreaking experience for us; we came so far last year,” Meeks said. But it’s a different team. We have different dynamics. We don’t really rely on just one person, two people, to score the ball — Brice (Johnson) and Marcus (Paige), they did a great job leading us last year.
“Now, it’s more of a collective effort where everybody has to do a tremendous job of doing the things we do best, which is running the ball up the court, rebounding and posting up inside.”
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FINAL FOUR