Carolina escapes to national championship game
Top-seeded North Carolina has two players to thank for the program’s 11th appearance in a national championship game: Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson.
The Tar Heels’ big man and best scorer willed North Carolina to a sloppy, 77-76 win against No. 3-seed Oregon on Saturday night, combining to score 47 points in an otherwise ugly national semifinal.
The ending, perhaps, was ugliest. With five seconds remaining and nursing a one-point lead over Oregon, Meeks and then Joel Berry II stepped to the free throw line and both missed their two shots. But both times, North Carolina collected the rebound, and Oregon was denied a shot at playing for its first national championship since 1939.
Meeks and Jackson held up the team as North Carolina’s many offensive threats fell away one after the other — second-leading scorer Joel Berry II had 11 points, NCAA tournament darling Luke Maye had 2, and Isaiah Hicks, 58 percent-career shooter, made just one of 12 attempted field goals. Meeks tied a career-high with 25 points and turned in 14 rebounds. Jackson had 22 points including four sharp three-pointers.
On the other end, Tyler Dorsey led the Ducks with 21 points while Jordan Bell had 16 rebounds and four monstrous blocks. Oregon gave up 20 points on 16 turnovers but matched the lengthy Tar Heels on the boards, 43-43.
Oregon’s decision making doomed it, in part, in the second half. The Ducks committed to their perimeter game and did make a three-pointer to take it to 77-74 with less than a minute remaining, but also missed 15 attempts from beyond the arc after halftime.
Meeks balls out
North Carolina’s big man Kennedy Meeks is driving his Tar Heels toward their 11th appearance in a national championship game. The senior has racked up 20 points, which matches his season-high, and 10 rebounds in 20 minutes. He has missed just one shot from the field and gone a perfect 2-for-2 from the free throw line. Meeks and ACC player of the year Justin Jackson (15 points) are the only players in double figures for the Tar Heels. The last 21 North Carolina points have come courtesy of that duo.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Ducks’ first Final Four appearance in 78 years comes with a cool bit of history – the crowd of 77,162 is the largest-ever to see an Oregon basketball game.
Tar Heels find themselves in time to take halftime lead
North Carolina clawed back from an ugly start to lead Oregon 39-36 at halftime in the Tar Heels’ record-setting 20th Final Four appearance.
The Tar Heels had to claw back from an ugly start. Top-seeded North Carolina, owners of one of the nation’s most productive offenses, had connected on just eight of 27 attempts from the floor (30 percent) and two of eight three-pointers with 6:20 left until intermission. Forward Kennedy Meeks and ACC player of the year Justin Jackson helped dig the Heels out of their hole with a 17-6 run to close the half. If there was an offensive highlight before then, it was Meeks, who ended the half with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Otherwise, Oregon’s defense rattled North Carolina, despite the Ducks’ nine turnovers.
Oregon guard Dylan Ennis led the team with eight points and bolstered the Ducks’ defense with a show on the other end of the court that included back-to-back three-pointers that put Oregon up 30-22 with just over four minutes to play. It was North Carolina’s largest deficit of the tournament.
Zags survive, will play for the title Monday night
Gonzaga survived a comeback attempt from a tenacious South Carolina team to advance to the national title game 77-73 Saturday night behind a signature performance from star guard Nigel Williams-Goss and a standout game from true freshman Zach Collins.
It was a late block from Collins that finally sealed the Bulldogs’ win after Gonzaga gave up a 14-point lead with 10 minutes remaining and watched as South Carolina went on a 16-0 run to tie things up. Williams-Goss had a game-high 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, six assists and five rebounds and is the first player to have at least 20 points, five assists and five rebounds in his Final Four debut since Duke’s Kyle Singler did it in 2010. Collins had 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.
Gonzaga and South Carolina’s first-ever meeting had all the makings of a defensive stalemate — the two teams rank first and second in the nation’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings — but instead became an offensive shootout. The Bulldogs’ answered the 16-0 run with a 7-0 jaunt of their own, sparked with a Collins’ three-pointer that Williams-Goss assisted.
The Gamecocks refused to fade quietly in their first ever Final Four appearance and got boosts from leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell, who had 15 points after an uncharacteristically quiet half, and PJ Dozier, who led four players in double figures with 17 points. Saturday’s game was the first in eight contests that Thornwell, who missed a day of practice with a fever this week, did not lead his team in scoring after averaging 25.8 points through the first four games of the tournament.
Tide turns with South Carolina run
There were just under 10 minutes remaining when Sindaris Thornwell announced his return with a smooth three-pointer that cut Gonzaga’s lead first to six and then completely with an emphatic flex of his muscles for good measure. After coming down with a fever and missing a day of practice this week South Carolina’s leading scorer hadn’t been himself all game – he had just nine points before his three. Now, Thornwell is helping spur the Gamecocks’ 16-0 comeback run.
Thornwell had five points in the first half after averaging 25.8 points through the first four games of the tournament. South Carolina is out to a two-point lead.
Zags in control at the half
Gonzaga closed out the first half of Saturday’s first national semifinal with a 7-0 run that finally bought some separation against scrappy South Carolina in the form of a 45-36 lead. The Gamecocks’ top scorer, Sindarius Thornwell, went all but three minutes without a field goal and South Carolina shot just 37 percent from the floor to Gonzaga’s 58 percent, yet the Gamecocks kept things close for most of the half until Zach Collins’ jumper sparked the Bulldogs’ late run.
Gonzaga’s leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss leads all players with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the floor, and did a remarkable job holding Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year, without a basket for much of the half. The main drama came when Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski left the game after getting poked in the eye – no foul was called – and the Zags outscored the Gamecocks 14-5 while he was sidelined.
Karnowski did in fact return, and the Zags moved out to a quick double-digit lead.
Everything you need to know
>> University of Phoenix Stadium is hosting the Final Four for the first time, and if its brief history as a football stadium is any indication, we could be in for some crazy games. Maybe it’s something in the soil, as one former Arizona Cardinals coach who by strange coincidence grew up farming the land that became the stadium, has some perspective on.
> The snarling, spiked-collar Bulldog of Gonzaga appeared Thursday at its first Final Four, plastered on the facade of University of Phoenix Stadium, gigantic in its vividness. The logo of a small Catholic school from Spokane, having long ago become a ubiquitous presence in the upper echelon of college basketball, had made it to the side of a spaceship in the American desert.
> And speaking of the origins of the Gonzaga men’s basketball program, we can’t forget about Dan Monson. As Adam Kilgore writes: In real life, there is no going back. Monson knows that well, and he is at complete peace with it. Even this week, as people perpetually ask him, “Why did you leave Gonzaga?” Especially this week, as he cherishes the opportunity to reminisce. At another assembly of former coaches and players earlier this week, Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth shook his hand and told him, “Dan, thanks for starting this.”
Nigel Williams-Goss has been about as close to perfect as a realistic coach could hope, even if he just spent four NCAA tournament games entering Saturday’s national semifinal against South Carolina shooting 31.1 percent. That’s because the Gonzaga floor general, one of five finalists for the Wooden Award, is a see-the-whole-game type even among see-the-whole-game types, so that box scores both tell and hide his effects.
>> Need an alphabetical guide to this Final Four weekend? We’ve got you covered, literally, from A to Z.
>> Welcome to the new underworld of Manager Games, eight teams composed of (mostly) college basketball team managers plus a sprinkling of staffers and the occasional ringer from this year’s bracket.
>> Miss any of last weekend’s madness? From Hootie’s tears of joy to Luke Maye’s heroics, we’ve got you covered.
>> Helpful tip/humble brag: Our NCAA bracket is unlike any other. It has 30-plus years of historical data that can give you more insight on this year’s field than anywhere else. Check it out.