Only 40 minutes of action now separate the North Carolina men’s basketball team from what eluded it a year ago: A national championship.
All season, these Tar Heels — most of whom were part of last year’s team, the one that lost the title on an unbelievable buzzer-beater by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins — have talked about getting back here, back to the title game, back to the spot they fell just short of. In order to avenge a loss, you’ve got to get back in position to have a chance to do it, after all.
North Carolina withstood a long stretch of poor shooting in the first half in which it trailed by as many as eight points and a second-half push by Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis to beat Oregon, 77-76, in the second of two national semifinal games Saturday night. UNC missed four consecutive free throws in the closing seconds but won the game with two ginormous offensive rebounds, the second of which ran out the time on the clock to secure the victory.
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The Tar Heels will face fellow No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Monday night in the national championship game. Monday will be North Carolina coach Roy Williams’ 100th time coaching a game in the NCAA tournament as a head coach. He’ll be shooting for his third national title.
And this group of players, so devastated a season ago, are shooting for redemption. They’ve spent 12 months thinking about The Shot, seeing highlights of The Shot and trying to use The Shot to motivate them for this run. A group chat that includes every player on the roster was named “Redemption” late last summer — literally — as preseason workouts began, so it could serve as a daily reminder of what this 2016-17 season was about.
Kris Jenkins, whose shot destroyed the Tar Heels almost exactly one year ago to date, sat in the first row of the North Carolina cheering section, alongside the parents he considers family, rooting for Nate Britt, who he considers a brother. Jenkins said he wasn’t nervous.
“I’ve got my national championship,” Jenkins said at halftime. “Now I want my brother to get one.”
Britt was an integral piece of North Carolina’s Final Four win, providing the Tar Heels with a spark off the bench late in the first half — making a key 3-pointer followed by a defensive stop and an assist on a Kennedy Meeks lay-up.
But the heaviest of workloads was carried by Meeks and Justin Jackson, who have carried heavy loads for this team at various points through the season. Meeks had his best game of the season, scoring 25 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in one of the most impressive individual performances of this NCAA tournament in the face of a shot-blocking menace in Oregon’s Jordan Bell. Jackson added 22 points of his own, including four 3-pointers that helped the Tar Heels build and hang onto their second-half lead.
Two bum ankles didn’t stop point guard Joel Berry from playing significant minutes in Saturday’s game, though his 2-for-14 shooting performance suggests he’s not playing fully healthy. Still, though, there was no way he’d leave his teammates hanging in a game of this magnitude, playing with both ankles wrapped.