For most of the second half Saturday night, an Oregon comeback victory against North Carolina seemed highly improbable — that is until the Ducks almost pulled it off in the dying seconds.
Sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey’s three-point shot with 45 seconds remaining bounced twice and slowly rolled in to draw Oregon within three at 77-74. After a Tar Heels miss, senior Dylan Ennis found freshman forward Keith Smith for an easy layup at the seven second mark.
North Carolina complied by missing four free throws in the final five seconds. But junior swingman Theo Pinson tapped the rebound back to junior guard Joel Berry II. Then senior forward Kennedy Meeks boarded Berry’s second miss and passed it out to Pinson to run out the clock.
Those boards allowed North Carolina (32-7) to escape with a 77-76 victory without giving Oregon (33-6) a chance for a game-winning shot.
“And then we missed a bunch of free throws. We talk and work on little things all the time. I tell them if you line up on the rebound spot, when your teammate is shooting the free throw, you’re trying to rebound. You’re either trying to tip it out or get a rebound. Kennedy went there. Joel, I think, first went there and missed. And then Kennedy went there and missed. And then Kennedy got the second rebound,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “So we do work on those things. We do talk about those things. But feel very lucky but that’s okay. Doesn’t make any difference; we’re still one of the two teams playing on Monday night.”
North Carolina will meet fellow No. 1 seed Gonzaga (37-1) for the national championship at 6:20 p.m. Monday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. The Tar Heels’ second straight finals berth is due in large part to Meeks, who dominated the Ducks down low throughout.
The 260-pound post bulled his way to 25 points on 11 of 13 shooting. Eight of his 14 rebounds were on the offensive end.
“I kind of had it in the back of my mind. I just knew that we had to be aggressive in the paint. Coach told us it was going to be a man’s game, and us four big men had to do a great job on the inside,” Meeks said. “So I took it upon myself to try to do the best I could to call for the ball, especially when my teammates got in trouble.”
Junior wing Justin Jackson filled in most of the gaps for the favorite, who struggled from the outside most of the night. More crucial than his 22 points was the timing of them.
In four minutes early in the second half, Jackson hit a trey, then nailed two more after a Meeks layup. Each three prevented Oregon from going on a run to get within one possession.
Dana Altman’s Ducks hung around for most of the early second half, but did not get closer than 56-52 after Dorsey drained a three.
The Oregon comeback began in earnest after Meeks stretched the Tar Heels lead to 66-56 with 8:31 remaining. The smaller squad got to the line, making six free throws in three minutes.
Two more free throws by junior forward Jordan Bell drew the Ducks within five with four minutes left. Nearly a minute later, Dorsey did the same thing to make the score 74-69.
“They were down 10 with seven, eight minutes to go, and wouldn’t give in to it. They’re going to look back and it’s going to hurt because we didn’t play very well at times. And our turnovers were bad and we made some really bad decisions and quick threes,” Oregon Coach Dana Altman said. “So they’re not going to feel really good about it when they watch the film. But I can’t fault their competitiveness. I can’t fault their effort. I wish we would have been a little sharper. But I’m sure Roy feels the same way. Like I said, it was two teams really playing hard, really wanted to win. Meeks had a great game, and we just didn’t stop him inside.”
Neither team could score for nearly two minutes. Bell laid in an offensive rebound to make it 75-71 at the 1:19 mark and Pinson made two free throws before Dorsey’s improbable shot.
Other than that odd trey, the sophomore lived at the line, with free throws accounting for 12 of his team-high 21 points. Ennis added 18 and Bell came back from a tweaked ankle in the first half to contribute 13 points and 16 boards.
Again Bell was alone in the post because of the late season-ending knee injury to Chris Boucher. However, the Ducks had defied the odds without their other athletic shot blocker, particularly in knocking off No. 1 seed Kansas to get to Glendale.
“It would have been great to have him. Chris changes the game, especially on the defensive end. But we didn’t have him. We knew we were going into this game without him,” Ennis said. “We won a lot of tough games without him. But he’s part of our family. We would have loved to have him out there. But because he wasn’t, it was on us to get the job done.”
Both teams’ marquee players struggled mightily. Berry finished with 11 points on 2 for 14 from the field while Oregon junior forward Dillon Brooks ended 2 for 11 for 10 points.
The Ducks built an eight-point lead late in the first half on a pair of Ennis treys after Bell’s injury. But a 9-2 Tar Heels run in the final two minutes provided North Carolina with a 39-36 lead at the break.
“I looked at the score at halftime as I was walking off the court for the first time, because I was trying to focus on the way we were playing. The question over here was how we struggled offensively. Their defense was better than our offense early. But what helped us later because we started defending a little better ourselves, and then we could run out and play against their defense before they got set,” Coach Williams said.