Meeks' huge game carries Tar Heels back to NCAA title game
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kennedy Meeks relentlessly attacked the boards, posting up deep in the paint and playing with an aggressive edge that hasn't always been there through his North Carolina career.
The Tar Heels needed every bit of it, too, to survive against Oregon in the Final Four.
The 6-foot-10 senior matched his career high with 25 points to go with 14 rebounds — ripping one down to seal the win — to help the Tar Heels beat the Ducks 77-76 in Saturday's national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. That sent the Tar Heels (32-7) back to the national championship game for the second straight season to face fellow 1-seed Gonzaga, putting them on the doorstep of their season-long goal to return and win.
It was a huge moment for Meeks, who battled weight issues early in his career, arriving on campus in 2013 at more than 300 pounds. He shed weight to the 260-range but struggled at times to finish explosively around the rim, particularly in a 1-for-8 shooting performance that included several misses on close shots in last year's loss to Villanova in the championship game. And he occasionally drew the ire of coach Roy Williams — who kept pushing and pushing him for more.
Consider this the return on all that investment.
"Kennedy, I thought, was awesome," Williams said. "I thought he controlled everything inside. ... I thought he was just sensational."
On a night when the Tar Heels sputtered through much of their execution, Meeks made 11 of 13 shots and had three steals in 30 minutes.
"I just knew that we had to be aggressive in the paint," Meeks said. "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."
That didn't happen. Senior Isaiah Hicks continued his abrupt late-season fade by missing 11 of 12 shots and finishing with 2 points. Luke Maye, who had become a folk hero around Chapel Hill after making the last-second jump shot to beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight, didn't make a shot from the field and got in foul trouble.
And 6-10 freshman Tony Bradley Jr. made just one basket.
"It takes you a long time to really get over that you don't have to score to be effective, you don't have to shoot all the shots to be effective," Meeks said. "You can do other things, rebounding. ... So I just took it upon myself to do the best job I could, whether it was having a great defensive game, scoring the ball when I can, or getting all the rebounds."
The Tar Heels nearly saw their goals slip away amid a haze of mistakes and missed free throws in the final minute. It was Meeks who came up with the clinching play, shaking off two missed free throws with 5.8 seconds left to beat Jordan Bell to a rebound when teammate Joel Berry followed with his own misses.
After ripping the ball away in traffic, he kicked it out to Theo Pinson to run out the final 4 seconds on the clock.
"He was the guy that kept us in there," junior Justin Jackson said.
"It was hard to get kind of used to that zone that they were playing, but he kept on competing inside for the boards and he posted extremely low today," Jackson said. "And when we found him, he was able to finish."
It marked Meeks' fourth straight game with at least 11 rebounds, including a career-high 17 against the Wildcats in the South Regional final. But he provided the offense too after scoring just 12 points on 3-for-7 shooting during the two-game regional stay in Memphis, Tennessee.
Jackson (22 points) was the only other Tar Heel finding any offensive success, while point guard Joel Berry II struggled to a 2-for-14 shooting night while hobbled by two ankle injuries.
UNC survived it all, thanks to Meeks having the kind of moment Williams had always envisioned.
"I just think the kid's living in the moment," said Sean May, UNC's director of player personnel and a former Final Four Most Outstanding player for the Tar Heels in 2005. "He realizes this is his senior year, this is it. ... Coach, he's rode him, and he'll tell you he's rode him. For him to have a night like he did tonight for us is pretty amazing."