It was all slipping away until Kennedy Meeks grabbed what will always be the biggest rebound of his life. Everyone could see it.
North Carolina had missed three straight free throws. Oregon had scored five straight points. The score was 77-76, UNC, and exactly four seconds remained in a Final Four game the Tar Heels seemed determined to blow.
A fourth straight missed free throw seemed inevitable at this point, and it was. Joel Berry missed – again.
And then Meeks yanked the game away from the Ducks with one big right hand, ripping down one final rebound and refusing to let this be the final moment of his final season.
The Tar Heels will play Gonzaga in the national championship Monday at 9:20 p.m. Eastern, and without Meeks that sentence could have never been true.
Oregon’s Jordan Bell had two hands on that last rebound. Meeks only had one.
But Meeks had an advantage in leverage. He had seen Bell jump early as he tried to box Meeks out. And so Meeks put his body into Bell’s, and now Bell – who already had 16 rebounds himself – was falling toward the baseline and Meeks was helping him out a little.
“I tried to bury him,” Meeks said.
Bury him – and Oregon – Meeks did. The senior from West Charlotte had the game of his life Saturday night, with 25 points and 14 rebounds.
He also missed two free throws himself with 5.8 seconds left – “I left the first one short and by the second one I was getting too emotional,” Meeks said. But those clanks were saved by Theo Pinson’s tip-out to Berry (Pinson also beat Bell on that play).
Then Berry missed his two free throws. But Meeks was there, and the Tar Heels won a very thrilling game in a very weird way.
“Kennedy owned the paint tonight,” said Sean May, the former Tar Heels center who played almost exactly the same way on the 2005 UNC championship team. “What I saw out there was a senior who didn’t want to go home.”
“Coach told us it was going to be a man’s game,” Meeks said, “and us four big men had to do a great job on the inside.”
The problem was that UNC’s other three big men – Isaiah Hicks, Luke Maye and Tony Bradley – really didn’t do a great job. Hicks in particular was awful – he shot 1-for-12. The other three big men put together had 12 rebounds and six points. Meeks surpassed all those numbers by himself.
On a night when Berry also shot 2-for-14, it seems amazing that the Tar Heels beat Oregon at all. But Justin Jackson had 22 points, and Meeks had his 25 on 11-for-13 shooting, and North Carolina advanced with that one last rebound.
After ripping the ball out of Bell’s grasp, Meeks threw it out to Theo Pinson before anyone could foul him. Pinson dribbled out the clock, and Tar Heel Nation stopped wondering where the defibrillators were and joined in the celebration.
An old-school success story
Meeks never would have been able to survive this type of game as a freshman. He came into North Carolina at a whopping 335 pounds – getting by so well on his immense talent in high school that he was an All-American but unable to play at anywhere near that weight in college.
He has worked on it for years at UNC, and ultimately he shed the weight of he plays at 6-10 and 260 pounds. The weight he has lost is roughly equivalent to that of an Irish Setter, so no wonder the pictures show him leaping quite well on that last rebound.
Meeks will also graduate in May with his degree. He has transformed both his body and his mind in Chapel Hill, and he has also gotten better every season.
As ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told me once: “Kennedy Meeks has had the development of a really good player in college in sort of the old-school way of doing it.”
Meeks has been instrumental throughout this NCAA tournament run for the Tar Heels. He had a critical tip-in against Arkansas and a career-high 17 rebounds against Kentucky. He is now fifth on UNC’s all-time rebounding list, having passed Brice Johnson Saturday night.
“I just thought he was sensational around the basket,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of Meeks.
One more challenge looms
That 14th and last rebound, though – that one saved it all. You know what happens if Bell gets that rebound, right? He throws an outlet pass and Oregon makes a last-second shot at the buzzer, just like Villanova did last season to win the national championship. All the momentum was swinging that way.
But Oregon never got the ball again. The pride of West Charlotte came up big one more time.
Now Meeks gets to play one final game in his college career.
The challenge – if you can believe it – will be even bigger. Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski is 7-1 and 300 pounds. He is one of the few players in college that Meeks will be able to stand next to and look small.
But Meeks wasn’t thinking about that quite yet late Saturday night. He said he was still a little “flustered” about his own missed free throws. So you can bet a lot of those are in his future on Sunday.
Mostly, though, he was just glad he would get to play one last time. UNC has been after this goal all season after losing a heartbreaker to Villanova a year ago in the national final.
Like Meeks, the Tar Heels hope they have one rebound left.
NORTH CAROLINA 77, OREGON 76
OREGON (33-6): Bell 5-7 3-5 13, Brooks 2-11 6-6 10, Dorsey 3-11 12-12 21, Pritchard 2-6 0-0 5, Ennis 7-19 2-2 18, Smith 2-2 0-0 4, Bigby-Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Benson 1-2 2-3 5. Totals 22-58 25-28 76.
NORTH CAROLINA (32-7): Hicks 1-12 0-0 2, Meeks 11-13 3-6 25, Pinson 2-8 3-4 8, Jackson 6-13 6-6 22, Berry 2-14 5-9 11, Maye 0-3 2-2 2, Bradley 1-2 0-0 2, Britt 2-3 0-0 5, S.White 0-0 0-0 0, Woods 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-68 19-27 77.
Halftime—North Carolina 39-36. 3-Point Goals—Oregon 7-26 (Dorsey 3-7, Ennis 2-9, Benson 1-2, Pritchard 1-5, Brooks 0-3), North Carolina 8-21 (Jackson 4-9, Berry 2-8, Britt 1-1, Pinson 1-2, Maye 0-1). Fouled Out—Brooks. Rebounds—Oregon 42 (Bell 16), North Carolina 42 (Meeks 14). Assists—Oregon 7 (Ennis 3), North Carolina 16 (Pinson 5). Total Fouls—Oregon 20, North Carolina 22. A—77,612 (72,220).