GLENDALE, Ariz. – The North Carolina Tar Heels’ quest for redemption has devolved into a perilous exercise in avoiding regurgitation.
No team chokes its way into the national title game. But Carolina has flirted with it hard.
Three times during this NCAA tournament, UNC has coughed up leads and felt the threat of elimination closing in. First, Arkansas came nipping at the Heels in the second round, rallying from 17 points down to take a five-point lead late, but failing to hang on. Then it was Kentucky, roaring back in the final minute and forcing a last-second basket to eliminate the Wildcats in the South Region final.
And then there was the carnival of near-collapse here Saturday night against Oregon in the Final Four. The key word being “near.”
North Carolina held on, 77-76, and will advance to play Gonzaga for the title that agonizingly eluded the Heels last year. That’s the most important thing – doesn’t matter whether you march into Monday or stagger in, as long as you get there.
But my goodness did they make it hard on themselves late.
Two veteran players stunningly missed four free throws in the final six seconds, but the Heels erased those errors by grabbing two offensive rebounds to prevent Oregon from attempting a winning shot.
First, senior Kennedy Meeks stepped up with 5.8 seconds left and thudded both foul shots off the front rim. But Theo Pinson, the man of a thousand small contributions for Carolina, soared over Oregon’s Jordan Bell to swipe away the rebound and guide it into the hands of junior guard Joel Berry.
Berry was then fouled and sent to the line with four seconds left. A 79 percent foul shooter, Berry doubled down on the Meeks misses with a pair of his own – the first one long and the second one short. But once again Bell was outmaneuvered for the rebound – this time by Meeks, authoring his own mini-redemption within a game he largely dominated before his own missed foul shots.
After Meeks grabbed the last of his 14 rebounds, to go with a career-high-tying 25 points, he whipped the ball back outside to Pinson, who began dribbling wildly away from all green uniforms – then slipped and nearly went straight out of bounds before wheeling around.
“I was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ ” Pinson said.
He collected himself and finally heard the horn, joyously throwing the ball into the University of Phoenix Stadium air. The escape was accomplished, one offensive board at a time.
“Theo saved Kennedy,” Berry said. “And Kennedy saved me.”
And Carolina saved its season by the thinnest of margins, but at least in a characteristic way. The Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they came up with the biggest two of the year late Saturday.
“Nobody wins a game like that,” said Pinson, shaking his head. “Well, I guess we did. We don’t want to win that way again.”
Here is the way North Carolina has won its past two games:
• By being outscored a combined 14-2 in the final 55 seconds by Kentucky and Oregon.
• By missing its final five foul shots – the four against the Ducks and a missed front end against the Wildcats that led to the tying shot.
• By going the final 5:53 against Oregon missing all five field-goal attempts and seven of 13 free throws.
And this is from the team that had all that tournament experience last year, advancing to within a Villanova buzzer beater of winning it all. The Final Four veterans sure appeared to have the sweatiest palms in Glendale on Saturday.
For a loose, jaunty bunch that has danced and laughed all season long, the last stretch toward that dearly desired summit has become a nerve-wracking slog.
“Very stressful,” said Berry, who had a rough night on a sore ankle (2 of 14 from the field, 5 of 9 from the line). “I mean, my heart was beating.”
“I can’t even explain it,” Pinson said wearily. “Every Tar Heel fan in the nation is sitting at home on the couch in relief. I’ll tell all of them, ‘Think how it is on the court.’ ”
Sometimes, it seems, you can almost want something too much. To the point where the pressure grows the closer you get.
Which means Monday night will be fascinating in terms of who handles the moment. Gonzaga has never been there, but largely played with aplomb in eliminating South Carolina in the other semifinal. Can the Tar Heels free themselves from expectation to perform at their best?
They certainly didn’t against the Ducks – good enough in the end, but shooting just 37 percent for the game and missing all those free throws late. Carolina coach Roy Williams was asked what was going through his mind watching his players fail to lock up a Final Four game at the foul line.
“Oh, jump off the building,” he said.
Fortunately for Williams, he was saved from making that leap by an Oregon team that fired a fusillade of bricks at the rim in the second half. This was a wildly inartistic game for most of it, and the Ducks’ attempts to rally in the second half were thwarted by 3-of-18 shooting from 3-point range.
However, the final Oregon three of the game bounced, bounced and dropped – a fortuitous result that made the score 77-74 with 45 seconds left. A Pinson drive missed with 18 seconds to play, and the Ducks pushed the ball ahead but were blanketed on the perimeter and settled for a layup with 6.4 seconds left, setting up the final white-knuckle drama.
“We’re relieved,” Williams said. “We feel very lucky. Feel very fortunate we’re still playing, but the fact of the matter is we’re still playing.
“We’re still one of the two teams playing on Monday night.”
More Final Four coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Why Geno Auriemma was smiling as UConn’s 111-game win streak ended
• South Carolina’s Frank Martin breaks down after his team’s Final Four loss
• Gonzaga fends off South Carolina to advance to national title game
• Gonzaga coach, 54, celebrates win with handstand