GLENDALE, Ariz. — The No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels broke the hearts of No. 3 Oregon, 77-76, in the Final Four from the University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday evening. With the win, North Carolina advances to the 2017 National Championship to play No. 1 Gonzaga.
The main storyline of the week literally decided the game on the final play of this epic showdown. Second-chance opportunities ended Oregon’s season on Saturday night.
“The guys battled. A close loss like this drives coaches and players crazy,” said Oregon head coach Dana Altman. “We needed to get a rebound. We missed a couple and had our opportunity.”
The Ducks were trailing by 10 points, 66-56, with 7:48 remaining in the game. Most media members began writing their recap, I did not. Once again, Oregon showed their resiliency. The loss of Chris Boucher taught this team more than a few lessons.
Oregon concluded the game on a 20-11 run, highlighted by a Tyler Dorsey 3-pointer that had help from above. In the final moments, a Keith Smith bucket cut the deficit to a single point, 77-76.
With the season resting at the foul line in the hands of UNC’s Kennedy Meeks, UO had their chances. After missing both free throws with 5.6 seconds left in the game, Oregon was unable to secure the rebound.
Following a Tar Heel offensive rebound, Joel Berry II went to the stripe with 4.0 seconds and missed both of his attempts. Yet, once again the Ducks were unable to secure the board and their season ended in despair without a final shot attempt for glory. Boucher was missed heavily in Arizona.
"If I just boxed out,” Jordan Bell said with tears streaming down his face. “I had two opportunities and I missed both of them. I missed both of them. We lost the game because of it.”
Bell did not lose this game for Oregon. If anything, he kept the Ducks alive.
For the game, Oregon held UNC’s offense to a horrendous 36 percent (25-of-68) from the floor. It may have seemed like North Carolina dominated the boards, but it was actually tied 43-43. The Tar Heels won the important offensive rebound margin 17-12, thanks to Meeks.
“We talk and work on little things all the time,” said North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. “You're trying to tip it out or get a rebound. We do work on those things. We do talk about those things.”
The Ducks turned the ball over 12 times in the first half. They cut it down in the second half, but still finished with 16 total miscues. Carolina made 11 turnovers.
“Too many bad decisions. Too many stupid plays,” stated Altman.
Oregon didn't shoot much better (38 percent) with UNC’s length and athleticism. UO made a living in a foul-heavy contest, shooting 89 percent (25-of-28) from the line. The Ducks had their moments to take ahold of the game, but their downfall was recording 26 percent (7-of-26) from deep.
“We had plenty of chances,” Altman said. “Made some really bad decisions, some quick 3’s. I thought we were pressing a little bit when guys tried to make plays. I can't fault our competitiveness.”
Meeks was the star of the game. The Carolina big man scored a game-high 25 points on 11-for-13 from the field. He was 3-for-6 from the line after missing the two crucial ones. The 6-foot-10 forward concluded his double-double with 14 rebounds, including three steals, an assist and a blocked shot.
"If it wasn't for Kennedy Meeks, we wouldn't have been in the basketball game," Williams stated.
He was unstoppable for long periods of the game, especially after Jordan Bell was hobbled by a lower leg injury. His biggest impact was made on the offense glass, where he snagged eight of his 14 boards.
The All-American Justin Jackson was throwing up prayers that were being answered all day. He illustrated his talent with 22 points on 6-for-13 shooting from the floor. He secured two boards, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot in the win.
North Carolina’s other three starters combined to score 21 points. Oregon stifled everyone outside the two stars, but that was expected.
Berry amassed just 11 points on 2-for-14 shooting. He was 2-for-8 from 3-point territory.
The Tar Heels opened the second half on a 9-2 run, 7-0 after Dylan Ennis tallied the first basket of the final 20 minutes. The 25-year-old had a team-high eight points entering the locker room. Oregon held a lead of eight points in the first half, 30-22, before Carolina ended the the first 20 minutes leading 39-36.
Isaiah Hicks was held to two points on 1-for-12 shooting.
Luke Maye was a non-factor off the bench after falling into early foul trouble. The hero of the Elite Eight took a back seat in this game with two points on 0-for-3 shooting.
Ennis led Oregon amid one of his greatest college performances. Fittingly in his final collegiate game, the senior scored 18 points on 7-for-19 from the floor. He added six boards, three dimes, two triples, a stolen pass and one incredible blocked shot that sent the 70,000-plus fans into a tizzy.
“We didn't win 33 games by accident,” Altman stated. “They really competed. Just too many turnovers tonight and some really bad decisions.”
Dorsey finished his season with a team-high 21 points. However, 12 of those 21 came from the charity stripe where he was 12-for-12 on Saturday. The sophomore endured a tough night against 6-foot-6 Theo Pinson, shooting 3-for-11 from the floor. However, Dorsey extended his streak of 20 points or more to eight straight games. He was 3-for-7 from downtown.
Bell was a monster once again, even after being slowed by a lower leg injury in the first half. He muscled through for an incredible double-double of 16 rebounds and 13 points. The 16 boards were a career-best for Bell.
And what Bell performance would be complete without a block party? The Long Beach product swatted away four UNC shots. He has 12 total blocked shots in his last two games. He was super from the field as well, going 5-for-7 with a jump-hook that he used to great success vs Meeks often in the first 20 minutes.
Dillon Brooks had an uncharacteristic night. He fouled out with 10 points on 2-for-11 from the floor. He registered six boards, five turnovers, two steals, an assist and a blocked shot. Brooks and Dorsey combined to shoot 5-for-22 from the floor.
Payton Pritchard started the game on fire, going 2-for-2 from the floor for five quick points. Unfortunately, he cooled off after drawing his third foul in the first half. The true freshman finished with five tallies.
Smith and Casey Benson combined to score nine points off the bench for Oregon.
At the end of the night, Oregon played one of their worst games of the season and still almost won the game. One can’t help to be excited for next year. Only 364 days until the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio, Texas. Always us.
With the loss, Oregon will conclude their historic season with a record of 33-6. The Ducks overcame the odds to elevate their game at the right time of the year. This is not the end, but the beginning of a new elite brand in college basketball. Do not hang your head, be proud of this team. The future is extremely bright.
Stay tuned to ATQ in the coming hours, days for the NBA status of Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey. We will find out their next moves very soon.
Watch Kennedy Meeks miss a free throw, Oregon is unable to secure the rebound.