North Carolina looked nothing like a championship team Sunday in the NCAA tournament – at least not until the game's final three minutes.
Fueled by a bizarre left-handed tip-in by Charlotte's Kennedy Meeks and a defense that got serious at just the right time, the Tar Heels scored the final 12 points of the game Sunday to edge Arkansas, 72-65, and advance to the NCAA Sweet 16.
No. 1 seed UNC will need to play much more consistently to advance even one round further. The Tar Heels basically had to win this game twice – they led in the first half by 17 points, frittered all of that away and then came back from 65-60 down with three minutes to go. The final comeback averted what would have been a monumental upset.
“We were awfully lucky,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. But Williams also talked about how “tough and focused” his team was in that 12-0 run to conclude the game. Those dozen unanswered points saved the season – for at least one more week.
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Meeks was really the only UNC starter who played well the whole way. With 16 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, the senior from West Charlotte led the Tar Heels in all three categories.
“I definitely think we feel blessed,” said Meeks, whose final rebound of the night gave him exactly 1,000 for his career. He is ranked ninth all-time in rebounding at the school.
The shot and the tip
The key tip-in came with UNC clinging to a 66-65 lead. It was a play that Meeks – now a relatively svelte 260 pounds – could never have made when he reported to Chapel Hill as an overweight 335-pound freshman with a love of fried foods.
Joel Berry – playing hurt on a bum ankle and in the midst of a 2-for-13 shooting night – was in trouble. The shot clock was winding down and Berry had to create something. He drove right and thought he got fouled. Arkansas players thought Berry had traveled. There was curiously no call, though, and so Berry just heaved an awkward shot up from about 18 feet that didn't even hit the rim.
“It was a horrible shot on my part,” Berry said. But the ball did carom off the backboard. Meeks got inside position and tipped the ball in with his left hand with 44 seconds to go.
Suddenly, UNC led by three points instead of one, and the momentum had turned for good. Said Meeks: “Coach always tells us that when the shot goes up to try to get in front of the defender and you have an easier rebound. So that's what I did. And the ball just fell in my hands.”
“It just so happened Kennedy was there to make up for it, so I've got to thank him for that,” Berry said.
‘Missing the easy ones’
Williams said he had criticized Meeks at halftime. Said Williams: “I was very upset with him (Meeks) at half because he had all kinds of shots around the basket and he was hurrying his shot like he was being intimidated, missing the easy ones. So I jumped him a little bit at that time. But I thought he did do a better job and was much better defensively for us in the second half, particularly the last three or four minutes. ... And when you think about having over a thousand rebounds in your career, he's been a big-time player for us for a long time.”
Yes, Meeks has. He helped save the Tar Heels Sunday, but they won't survive another game in which Berry and Justin Jackson go a combined 7-for-27 from the field. The rest of the teams are just too good, including Butler – UNC's next opponent Friday in Memphis.
The Tar Heels won't win like they did against Arkansas again. If they shoot 38 percent again for a game and make 17 turnovers, they will lose in a hurry.
Then again, every championship team also has one near-miss like this. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger and all that.
With UNC down five points, Williams said in the timeout: “I told our guys we hadn't won one like this all year long. That would be great for us. We've got to be tough. It's got to be with our brain and our heart both.”
And it was, as Meeks’ tip was just enough for the UNC ship to avert the iceberg.