GLENDALE, ARIZ. – North Carolina secured a trip to the national championship game by doing the stuff you’re not supposed to do if you’re trying to reach the national championship. Like going the final 5:55 without a basket. Like throwing the ball away against pressure. Like missing four (of four) free throws in the final 5.8 seconds and still not allowing the opponent to try a winning shot.
See, to try a winning shot, you need the ball. Trailing by a point, Oregon couldn’t get the ball. After Kennedy Meeks missed his second free throw – he’d also missed the first -- with 5.8 seconds remaining, the Tar Heels’ Theo Pinson flipped the ball away from the basket to Joel Berry II, who got fouled with 4.0 seconds left. Berry missed the first. Then he missed the second. Then the Ducks botched the rebound again.
Meeks grabbed the ball and, finally and mercifully, the game. (That part was fitting. Meeks had 25 points and 14 rebounds.) He suggested afterward that Jordan Bell, the Ducks’ only healthy big man, had gone too far under the basket. Bell might have been helped on his journey; replays hinted that Meeks administered a tiny shove to Bell’s lower back. Be advised that no referee in the world would have called that foul at that moment and, even if one had, Bell would surely have missed his free throws at the other end. Put simply, Oregon didn't deserve to win.
Because this game -- the final score was 77-76 -- was a royal mess. Oregon made seven turnovers in the first 10 minutes and led 15-13. The Ducks surged ahead by eight points but saw the Heels score on their next eight possession to seize a 39-36 halftime lead. North Carolina wouldn’t trail again. It wasn’t shooting well, but neither was Oregon. This was supposed to the prettier of the semifinals, which goes to show that sometimes nobody knows anything. The Gonzaga-South Carolina game, no raving beauty itself, was more winsome than this.
The Heels led by 10 with 7:49 remaining. Oregon would score exactly three baskets thereafter. Still it managed to rally, though that mightn’t be the proper word. Two sleek offenses clunked to simultaneous halts. The Ducks would make 37.9 percent of their shots on the night, making them relative marksmen; the Heels would make 36.8 percent of theirs.
For the longest time, Oregon’s turnover total – it finished with 16 – nearly matched its number of hoops. The Ducks played a spectacularly addled game, the most egregious moment coming when guard Dillon Brooks – who did have more turnovers (5) than baskets (2) – fouled Berry with six seconds remaining on the shot clock and the North Carolina guard 25 feet from the basket. It was Brooks’ fifth and disqualifying foul.
And yet, as if by osmosis, the Ducks paddled closer. A bounce-off-the-rim 3-pointer by Tyler Dorsey cut the deficit to three. Then Pinson missed on a drive and Oregon sub Keith Smith scored in transition. Now the lead was a skinny point. There it would remain. North Carolina missed four free throws. Oregon whiffed on two rebounds. This was surely the most comical ending of a one-point game in Final Four history.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams: “We feel very lucky. Feel very fortunate we're still playing, but the fact of the matter is we're still playing.”
Oregon coach Dana Altman, asked by yours truly about the failed rebounds: “I don't know. There was a scrum there and we didn't come up with either one. So Jordan felt terrible. But I told him, ‘Buddy, you got 16 rebounds; we wouldn't have been in this position if it hadn't been for you.’ So all the guys felt bad. We had 5.8 seconds. We had time to get a look. And we just didn't get it done.”
Nope. And that, for a coach, is the absolute worst that can happen. If your team gets a shot to win and misses, you say, “That’s basketball.” If your team forfeits not one but two chances to take such a shot, you wake up in the middle of the night every week for the rest of your life screaming, “How did that happen?”
In the grand scheme, The Ducks’ lax boardwork did us a favor. Nobody outside the Great Northwest wanted a Gonzaga-Oregon final. At least now we get a No. 1 seed against a No. 1 seed. We get North Carolina looking to rectify last year’s excruciating loss to Villanova. We get Gonzaga trying to prove, once and for all, it belongs among the bluest of bluebloods.
We got the right final. We just had to put up with one silly semi to get there.