For 362 days now, North Carolina has been driven by the memory of the end of last season, of walking off of a confetti-covered court while another team boisterously celebrated one of the most dramatic national championship victories in college basketball history.
The Tar Heels’ focus, for nearly a year, has been to return that stage – the bright lights of the final Monday night of the season. Now, after a 77-76 victory against Oregon on Saturday night in an NCAA tournament national semifinal, UNC will have its chance to earn its long-sought redemption.
The Tar Heels, the top seed in the South Region, advanced to the national championship game for the 11th time in school history. They’ll play against Gonzaga, the top seed in the West, on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Tar Heels achieved their season-long goal of making it back to the national championship game after a dramatic finish on Saturday night, an ending in which they missed four free throws in the final 5.8 seconds.
First Kennedy Meeks, who played perhaps his finest college game, missed a pair of free throws with 5.8 seconds left, the Tar Heels leading by a point. After the second of those misses Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, secured the rebound and passed out to Joel Berry, who was quickly fouled.
Then Berry stepped to the line with four seconds left. He missed the first, filling UNC supporters in this cavernous stadium with an ominous sense of dread. Then Berry missed the next, the ball bouncing off the left side of the rim.
Meeks, among the best rebounders in the country, was in position, though, and he secured the rebound and passed it out on the perimeter, where Pinson dribbled out the final seconds, sending the ball high into the air in celebration. And with that, UNC survived.
Meeks finished with 25 points, which tied his career high, and 14 rebounds – none more important than his final one. Justin Jackson, the junior who earned ACC Player of the Year honors, finished with 22 points, 13 of those in the second half.
During one stretch in the second half, Jackson made three 3-pointers in a four-minute span, giving the Tar Heels a seven-point lead. At the time it appeared that UNC was in control, and that it might advance to the national championship game with little drama at the end.
Guess again, though. Oregon gradually cut into UNC’s lead, while the Tar Heels went cold from the field in the final minutes. They didn’t make a shot from the field during the final five minutes, 53 seconds, but the Ducks often failed to take advantage due to shooting woes of their own.
Even so, Oregon’s Keith Smith cut UNC’s lead, which was as large as 10 with 8½ minutes to play, to one with seven seconds left. That set up the frenetic finish, which began when Meeks went to the line with 5.8 seconds remaining.
Had he made both free throws, the Tar Heels would have held a three-point lead. Instead he missed them both, and Berry did the same soon after. UNC, though, proved again why it’s the best offensive rebounding team in the country.
The Tar Heels secured the second of Meeks’ misses, and the second of Berry’s, and the seconds ran off while they celebrated their second consecutive national championship game appearance.