North Carolina missed four free throws in the final seconds but came up with two key offensive rebounds to help hold back Oregon 77-76 before 77, 612 fans in the Final Four at University of Phoenix Stadium. Kennedy Meeks led the effort for the Tar Heels, playing perhaps the best game of his career, with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Justin Jackson was also effective for UNC scoring 22 points and connecting on four three-pointers. Tyler Dorsey led Oregon with 21 points, his eighth straight post-season game with over 20 points.
North Carolina won the game despite off games offensively from Joel Berry II (2-of-14), Isaiah Hicks (1-of-12) and Theo Pinson (2-of-8). Pinson made his impact on the defensive end, using his length to bottle up Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, didn’t have his best tournament and was bothered by Pinson’s length. Brooks never could get it going, shooting 2-of-11 from the field in scoring 10 points and fouled out with 1:32 remaining. In the final minute, Oregon trailed 77-71 when Dorsey hit a three-pointer with 45 seconds left to cut the lead the three. After a Pinson miss with 18 seconds left, Keith Smith scored on a lay-up to cut the Tar Heel lead to 77-76. That set the stage for two missed free throws by Meeks. Then after another foul, Berry missed his two charity shots before Meeks pulled down his eighth offensive board of the night to seal the game for the Tar Heels.
Both teams had trouble getting into their offense in the first half until Oregon, helped by two three-pointers from Dylan Ennis (18 points) ran out to a 30-22 lead. North Carolina came back from there, taking a 39-36 halftime lead. They extended their run at the start of the second half and brought their lead to eight points (46-38) on a three-pointer from Jackson. It was a 26-8 run by the Tar Heels which put them in control of the game until the Ducks made their late surge.
Oregon was surprisingly loose with the ball in the first half, committing 12 turnovers, with four from Brooks. They ended the contest with 16 turnovers against only seven assists, usually a recipe for disaster. But they fought hard defensively and Jordan Bell did his job on the boards (16 rebounds and 13 points). While the Ducks couldn’t grab those last second rebounds they battled the bigger Tar Heels evenly off the glass (43 rebounds each) although the Tar Heels had a +5 edge on the offensive glass. Oregon also shot poorly from distance (7-of-26) and stayed in the game at the foul line (25-of-28) with Dorsey making all 12 of his attempts.
At the end, the game could have gone either way. A team needs a little luck and key plays to win close games and advance in the tournament. Oregon got that in wins against Rhode Island and Michigan but couldn’t pull it off against North Carolina. The Tar Heels advance to play Gonzaga, each a No. 1 seed, in a highly anticipated championship game on Monday night.
In the first game, Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points and added six assists and five rebounds to lead Gonzaga (37-1) to a hard-fought 77-73 win over a gritty South Carolina (26-11) squad. 7-0 freshman Zach Collins may have been the key for the Zags, contributing 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots in 23 minutes off the bench. 6-6 sophomore guard PJ Dozier led the Gamecocks with 17 points and added nine rebounds.
Gonzaga came out shooting very well, hitting 5-of-9 first half three-pointers and 58 percent from the field in moving out to a 45-36 halftime lead. SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell was off in the half only shooting 1-of-5. The Gamecocks extended their defense in the second half and were more aggressive on the boards. Gonzaga had a 14-point lead with 10:55 remaining when South Carolina came storming back, scoring the next 16 points to take a 67-65 lead.
Collins answered with a three-pointer and Przemek Karnowski (13 points) followed with a dunk and lay-up to give Gonzaga a 72-67 lead that they would not relinquish. South Carolina had chances to tie the game in the final two minutes but Rakym Felder missed a jumper with 1:37 remaining and Dozier came up empty on a three-pointer with 1:12 left. French freshman, 6-10 Killian Tillie hit two free throws, his only points of the game, with two seconds left to give the Zags their four-point winning margin.
Helped by Collins’ strong board work Gonzaga ended the game with a +5 rebounding margin. South Carolina cut that margin in the second half as Chris Silva (13 points) finished with 13 rebounds. Thornwell (15 points) shot an inefficient 4-of-12. Gonzaga hit just under 50 percent (29-of-60) for the game while hitting 9-of-19 three-pointers. Gonzaga advances to the championship game for the first time in program history.
This article was written by Carl Berman, Managing Partner of NetScouts Basketball.