Final Four 2017: Appropriately sloppy ending sends UNC to national title game

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One of the most haphazard national semifinals in history was appropriately decided by four missed free throws from the winning team, while the losing team twice failed to grab a rebound and give themselves a chance at redemption. 

We will have a top-seeded showdown in the desert to decide the national title. No. 1 North Carolina’s 77-76 win Saturday night over No. 3 Oregon sets up the Tar Heels to play No. 1 Gonzaga. 

The Bulldogs, here via the West region and catapulted into the championship thanks to an impressive semifinal win over South Carolina, have rated as the strongest team in college basketball in multiple advanced metrics for more than two months. North Carolina is back in the championship game after losing last year’s epic at the buzzer against Kris Jenkins and Villanova. It’s a game between the second-winningest program in NCAA Tournament history (North Carolina, with 118 victories) vs. the once-upon-a-time Cinderella that is in the title game for the first time in its existence.

The Tar Heels played a jittery style — to say the least — en route to a close-shave victory on Saturday. Kennedy Meeks had the best game of his career, especially when taking the stage into account, with 25 points and 14 rebounds on 11-of-13 shooting. Ironically, Meeks had two misses from the foul line with 5.8 seconds to go. Thankfully for UNC, Theo Pinson tapped out Meeks’ miss to Joel Berry.

Foul on Oregon.

Then Berry promptly missed two foul shots. And you could feel the hurl coming up the stomachs of tens of thousands around University of Phoenix Stadium. Meeks made good by rebounding Berry’s second miss, allowing UNC to run out the clock.

Meeks and Justin Jackson (22 points) contributed 61 percent of UNC’s output. Jackson, so confident from the corner, helped pad UNC’s second-half lead thanks to a pair of 3-pointers from the corner. These games are won a hundred ways, but when North Carolina needed to keep its gear, Jackson’s dead-eye from the far corner provided stability that would be needed in the closing minute. 

The Heels got by despite poor shooting elsewhere. Carolina ended the game shooting 36.8 percent (25 for 68). 

Oregon had its own problems. UNC’s bumpy play in the final four minutes left the Ducks with about a dozen chances to close the gap, but they blew almost all their opportunities. More importantly, Tyler Dorsey, who was second in NCAA Tournament scoring heading into Saturday, finished with 21 points on 2-of-11 shooting. Dillon Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, had 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting. Brooks picked up his fourth foul with 5:35 left, then left the game with his fifth with 1:32 to go and with Oregon trailing by five points. He leaves this tournament without having the kind of signature game the Ducks would have needed from him in order to earn a championship. 

The two combined to shoot a brutal 5 for 22. The Ducks’ best player on Saturday: 25-year-old senior Dylan Ennis, who leaves college basketball with a performance he should be proud of. Ennis had 18 points and six rebounds. His 3-pointers in the first half gave the Ducks a 30-22 lead, then UNC worked its way back and wound up with a 39-36 lead at the half thanks to a closing 7-0 run. 

The Ducks had a team-tournament-high 16 turnovers. And without the injured big man, Chris Boucher, the Ducks were unable, for the first time in the tournament, to find continuity, and dominance in the key on the defensive end. Boucher sure would have helped down low in the final seconds, when UNC poked the ball away from Oregon and never let the Ducks get possession and one final shot to tie or win the game. 

For Monday: Gonzaga and UNC have combined to win 69 games. If the Heels get by the Zags, they’ll become the fourth team in history to win the title the year after losing in the championship game. The three previous instances came from blue blood programs, and one of them is via UNC: The Heels lost the 1981 title game to Indiana, 63-50, and beat Georgetown the next year. In 1990, Duke lost 103-93 to UNLV, then beat Kansas 72-65 in in 1991. And in 1997, Kentucky was knocked off 84-79 by Arizona in overtime, then beat Utah 78-69 in 1998. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

Show Comments Hide Comments
Our Latest Stories
    CBS Sports Shop