PHOENIX — The shot that has haunted the North Carolina basketball team for the past 51½ weeks floated around the University of Phoenix raters like a terrifying apparition Saturday.
Just a hair more time than it took Villanova to dribble the length of the floor and break the Tar Heels’ hearts in last year’s national championship. Leading Oregon by a point with a trip back to the title game on the line, the last thing UNC wanted was to give an opponent another last shot to beat it.
This time it didn’t.
Only not in the conventional manner.
Despite missing their final four free throw attempts, offensive rebounds by Theo Pinson and Kennedy Meeks kept the ball in the Tar Heels’ hands and allowed them to run out the clock for a 77-76 victory that sets up a Monday matchup against Gonzaga for the title that has been its only goal since Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer went through the basket in Houston last April.
“Every time we get to that moment, that shot always goes through my head,” point guard Joel Berry said of Jenkins’ fateful basket. “I just don’t want to lose a game like that again. You can’t go all that way, lead the whole game and then lose off a one-second shot. “I just felt like our guys realized that we’re not going out that way. We’re not going out with a team hitting another game-winner on us.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying, though.
UNC appeared to have things well in hand when Berry made a 3-pointer with 5:54 remaining to build a 72-62 lead. But it was the last field goal the Tar Heels would make in the game.
Unlike previous NCAA tournament victories against Arkansas and Kentucky, when they played their best basketball in the final few minutes, this time they stumbled to the finish.
They were barely hanging on by the time Oregon’s Keith Smith pulled his team to within a point with 6.4 seconds left. The pressure only mounted when Kennedy Meeks was fouled and sent to the line just after the ensuing inbound pass. Meeks had been magnificent to that point on his way to a career-high 25 points and 14 rebounds. But instead of giving UNC at least a small cushion, he clanked both free throws.
The junior forward beat the Ducks’ Jordan Bell to the ball and tapped it out to Berry to help dodge a potential disaster.
“I just wanted to bid on the ball,” Pinson said. “We talk about that all the time, about tip-outs, and we did a good job of it. That’s just something we do and I’m glad it worked out.”
The Tar Heels (32-7) got another chance to take care of business at the line when Berry was fouled at the 5.8 second mark. An 80.8 percent free throw shooter who was clearly bothered by his two sprained ankles, Berry also missed both of his shots to leave his team vulnerable.
But again, the work that helped UNC lead the nation in rebounding paid off when Meeks out-jumped Bell for the ball on the second miss, then fired it outside to Pinson to run out the clock.
“I got down on myself when I missed the two free throws, because it definitely could have been good for us,” Meeks said. “But my main focus was that if Joel missed the second free throw, hit the glass hard. Earlier in the game I didn’t hit the glass and I looked over at coach (Roy Williams) and he kind of gave me the motion … hit the offensive glass. So I just tried to do that to the best of my ability.”
While Meeks accomplished that goal inside, teammate Justin Jackson did the bulk of the damage from the perimeter while hitting four 3-pointers and scoring 22 points. He was particularly effective during a mid second-half stretch in which UNC outscored Oregon 17-9 to finally gain some badly needed separation.
That the Tar Heels were ahead at all was something of surprise considering that Berry and Isaiah Hicks — two of their top offensive threats — were a combined 3 for 26 from the floor.
As a team, UNC got off to a 6 for 24 start while falling behind by as many as eight late in the first half. But with an injection of energy from Nate Britt off the bench, the Tar Heels closed out the half on a 9-2 run to take a lead they would never relinquish.
“That defense they play, it’s totally different than anything we’ve seen,” Jackson said of the Ducks’ matchup zone. “So we weren’t as aggressive. But once we kind of found the spots that we could attack, we had better movement, spacing. That’s when we kind of got into it.”
And they stayed into it until the end, when it took a little luck along with a lot of rebounding practice — to hold on for the win.
“I’ve never been through that in my life,” Pinson said of the improbable ending. “And I hope I never go through it again.”