North Carolina survives Oregon comeback, heads back to National Championship
North Carolina knows what it’s supposed to do during free throws. The Tar Heels work on rebounding misses regularly, although they don’t exactly practice tipouts like Theo Pinson’s game-saving touch.
“I knew I had to bid on it and see what happens,” Pinson said. “That was so nerve-racking, but I was just so happy.”
The junior’s tip on Joel Berry’s second consecutive miss fell into Kennedy Meeks’ ready hands, and the senior’s 14th rebound of the game sealed top-seeded UNC’s (32-7) repeat trip to the NCAA national championship with a 77-76 win against Oregon (33-6).
“I felt like Jordan (Bell) went in a little further than I expected to try to get the ball on the front of the rim instead of from the left side of the goal,” Meeks said. “I just tried to bury him a little bit and grab the ball.”
The Tar Heels’ leading scorer and rebounder missed two free throws of his own just one second before Berry missed his pair. After scoring 25 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, Meeks’ two misses were still on his mind as he waited to the side ready to make a play and help his team preserve the win.
Without a doubt, the senior and his teammates had flashbacks to the way the 2016 season ended. Pinson couldn’t avoid it – how could the similarities of the two games not remind Roy Williams’ team of the dagger that sent Villanova to the title and the Tar Heels away empty handed?
“Of course, it’s almost the exact same amount of time (left on the clock), those guys fought back like we did, of course you have those flashbacks, but you still have to have your main focus and that’s getting stops on the defensive end,” Meeks said.
Meeks and Pinson made the right play on their own end of the court, never letting Oregon get the ball back on its end of the hardwood in the last 5.8 seconds of the game. That, in itself, was better than a stop.
“I’m just so glad they didn’t even get it to the other end of the court,” Berry said. “What made me happy was he was able to solidify the rebound.
“We didn’t give them a chance to go down and score. I went over and thanked him.”
North Carolina did make several defensive plays throughout the game before the 0-for-4 game-ending free throws meant one lone shot could end its season.
The Ducks star scorers Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks made a combined five field goals as UNC took as much as a 10-point lead in the middle of the second half.
“We just tried to make their touches as hard as possible and get them off their spots,” Jackson said. “When they got the ball, try to be all over them. Whenever they get their spots, it’s hard to guard them.”
But slowly, the execution got sloppier and stops turned into repeat trips to the charity stripe for Oregon.
“It felt like the last 12 possessions, they were on the free throw line, and that’s not against the refs. We played bad defense. We kept fouling,” Jackson said.” We’ve got to do better at keeping teams off the free throw line. We did a good job of still getting them hurried a little bit.
“We just had some breakdowns, they had some great spacing, some great ball movement.”
On the other hand, North Carolina’s offense struggled more than it usually does. UNC shot 36.8 percent from the floor, the lowest in an NCAA Tournament win for the program since 35.9 percent vs. Princeton on March 17, 1967.
Pinson, Berry and Isaiah Hicks were a combined 5 for 34 from the field, while Jackson and Meeks missed a combined nine shots (and only two of those were Meeks’).
“I’m still battling my injury,” Berry said, candidly rather than to excuse his shooting. “But the biggest thing is I’m never going to stop taking my shots. I’m going to stay confident every time I take my shot. I’ve got to get a lift on my shot.”
But UNC’s ability to win despite Berry’s 2-for-14 performance (both made shots: three-pointers) is a testament to how it is able to repeat the trip to college basketball’s very last game of the year. It isn’t about just one player. This season’s success continues to come from the unit’s ability to produce, score points and make unchartable plays in nameless fashion.
“They scored the ball, and that’s what we needed,” Berry said. “We needed those guys. That goes to show the balance of this team. Justin can lead scoring, Kennedy can lead scoring, Isaiah, myself. Maybe Theo can lead scoring one day. He accepts his role, that’s why I say that.
“That’s the great thing about our starting five, we don’t care about who’s scoring. We just care about winning the game.”