GLENDALE, ARIZ. – North Carolina’s Roy Williams was the only coach in the Final Four that had been there before – and his program has an NCAA record 20 appearances in the national semifinals.
hat type of experience and tradition made the Tar Heels the clear favorite Saturday over Oregon, but it took them until late in the first half to wake up and play like a potential champion.
Trailing by eight points in the first half, North Carolina was shooting just 25 percent from the field. The only reason it wasn’t getting blown out was because of the play of Kennedy Meeks, who finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds.
And Meeks’ offensive rebound on a missed free throw in the closing seconds eventually helped the top-seeded Tar Heels barely escape with a 77-76 victory over No. 3 seed Oregon to advance to their second straight NCAA championship game.
“If it wasn’t for Kennedy Meeks, we wouldn’t have been in the basketball game,” Williams said. “It’s a dream come true to get there. Now we’ve got to play better.”
Tyler Dorsey’s three-pointer followed by a layup from Keith Smith cut it to 77-76 with seven seconds left in the game. Meeks missed two free throws with 5.8 seconds left, but Theo Pinson tapped the ball out to put his team on the line once again.
Joel Berry clanked the front end of a 1-and-1, but Meeks was there for the clutch carom to seal it.
Williams will be vying for his third national title and first since 2009 when North Carolina (31-7) plays Gonzaga on Monday night. Jackson also had 22 points for the Tar Heels.
“We’re moving on,” said Jackson, who finished with 22 points. “We’ll get back in the gym tomorrow and probably work on a lot of free throws, but we’re just happy to move on.”
Dorsey finished with 21 points and Dylan Ennis had 18 points for the Ducks (33-6), who were making their first Final Four appearance since 1939. That’s when they won the inaugural crown. An all-West Coast final would’ve been intriguing. But Oregon was playing from behind after leading early.
Meeks’ dominance in the post kept his team within striking distance before a late surge helped the Tar Heels take a 39-36 lead into halftime. Meeks had 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first half, while the rest of his team shot just 8-for-28 from the floor.
Dorsey had just four points on 0-for-4 shooting in the first half. All-American Dillon Brooks wasn’t that much better with just six of his 10 points on 2-for-7 shooting and four of his team’s 12 turnovers by halftime.
The Ducks stayed in the game by winning the rebounding battle early. Even without 6-10 center Chris Boucher (knee injury) in the NCAA tournament, they were tough to keep off the glass because of double-double machine Jordan Bell.
Bell finished with 13 points and 16 rebounds. But he needed help battling in the paint Saturday.
The Tar Heels’ size eventually gained them the edge on the boards. The top rebounding team in the nation finished with 19 second-chance points on 17 offensive rebounds Saturday.
Meeks opened the second half scoring twice on offensive rebounds, including an emphatic putback dunk. But he went to the bench with three fouls at 14:44. The Ducks, though, failed to take advantage of his absence. They couldn’t stop Jackson.
Jackson scored eight straight points during one stretch. After a few minutes, Meeks returned and immediately made his presence felt. After a missed free throw, Pinson grabbed the offensive rebound and found Meeks for a layup to take a 66-56 lead.
It was basically a two-man show Saturday, but North Carolina’s run to a second straight NCAA title game wouldn’t have been possible without sixth-man Luke Maye’s jumper with 0.3 seconds left in a 75-73 win against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
That was a fitting way to advance since the Tar Heels suffered a heart-breaking loss in last year’s national championship game on a buzzer-beating three from Villanova’s Kris Jenkins.