GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Ducks just couldn’t put a stop to Kennedy Meeks.
The senior forward was the only player in Carolina blue who could break through the Oregon defense inside. He was the only one who could consistently get baskets for the Tar Heels.
He was also the last one to pull away Oregon’s final hope for a date with Gonzaga on Monday for the NCAA Tournament finale.
In the final seconds of North Carolina’s 77-76 win over the Ducks on Saturday, Oregon struggled the find a good look from beyond the arc. With seconds left, the Ducks found only Keith Smith open under the rim. Smith hit a layup to bring the Ducks within one point.
The Tar Heels immediately pulled desperate fouls from Oregon that sent two of North Carolina’s top shooters to the line. Meeks was up first, and the forward missed both opportunities. North Carolina’s Theo Pinson took back grabbed the long rebound, so the Ducks fouled again.
Up next to the line was junior guard Joel Berry II, who gave into the nerves and missed both shots.
But Oregon was nowhere to be found.
So Meeks drove to the glass and pulled down another board that sealed the win for the Tar Heels.
“I got down on myself when I missed the two free throws, because it definitely could have been good for us,” Meeks said. “My main focus was if Joel missed the second free throw, hit the offensive glass hard.”
Meeks hit the offensive glass hard seven other times throughout the game, grabbing a total of 14 rebounds. The forward also led the team with a game-high 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting from the field.
Fellow big Isaiah Hicks was not as successful inside as Meeks was on Saturday. Hicks only hit one field goal and missed 11.
Junior forward Justin Jackson followed Meeks with 22 points, including four 3s. Pinson scored eight points for the Tar Heels and pulled down eight boards.
“The thing that’s easy to say and easy to understand – we’re relieved,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We feel very lucky. (We) feel very fortunate we’re still playing.”
North Carolina’s trip to the Final Four finale wasn’t an easy ride on Saturday.
Oregon took the lead briefly in the first after the Tar Heels went on a three-minute scoring drought. The Ducks pulled away by as much as eight points behind Dylan Ennis’ back-to-back 3s.
The Ducks held the lead until the final minute when North Carolina’s Nate Britt hit a 3-pointer to narrow the Tar Heels’ deficit to one. On North Carolina’s next possession, Meeks pulled inside, took a pass from Britt and hit a layup. Then Jackson scored a jumper to put the Tar Heels up by three heading to intermission.
Despite Oregon’s late rally in the second, the Tar Heels held down the Ducks for the almost the entire second half. Oregon was able to pull within a point immediately after intermission, but couldn’t close in on the Tar Heels until the final minute.
North Carolina built its lead to as much as 10 points behind Meeks’ 3-point play halfway through the second that sent the score to 66-56. In that play, Meeks was sent to the line after drawing a foul while going for a layup. Meeks hit the first shot and missed the second. Pinson grabbed the board and fed the ball to Meeks, who tried for another layup and made it.
Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey led the Ducks with 21 points, including a last-minute 3 that narrowed North Carolina’s lead to three points.
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