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Final Four: Tar Heels nearly squander 10-point lead but top Oregon

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Joel Berry II

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Joel Berry II #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels handles the ball on offense against the Oregon Ducks during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images / Ronald Martinez

GLENDALE, Ariz. — North Carolina gets another crack at it. Barely.

A year after having their season end with a buzzer-beater through the heart in the championship game, the Tar Heels again will play for a sixth national title Monday night after Saturday night’s 77-76 win over Oregon in the second semifinal game at University of Phoenix Stadium.

So they will have a chance to exorcise the ghost of Kris Jenkins and Villanova. But first, they had to overcome their own foibles.

Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey hit a three-pointer that seemed to touch every part of the rim before slipping through the net with 45 seconds left — “It bounced around, bounced around, went below the rim and crawled back over the top and went back in,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said — and Keith Smith made a transition layup with seven seconds left to trim Oregon’s 10-point deficit eight minutes earlier to 77-76.

Oregon would never possess the ball again, though, despite four straight missed free throws by North Carolina in the final 5.8 seconds. Kennedy Meeks missed the first two, and the ball was tipped out to Joel Berry II for an offensive rebound with 4.0 seconds remaining. Then Berry missed his two foul shots, and it was Meeks’ turn to grab the rebound. He outletted the ball and the Ducks could not foul anyone before the clock ran out.

“I got down on myself when I missed the two free throws, because it definitely could have been good for us,” Meeks said. “But my main focus was if Joel missed the second free throw, hit the offensive glass hard . . . [Oregon’s] Jordan Bell kind of went in a little more than I thought he would, so I just got behind him and the ball fell in my hand.”

Williams said he felt like “jumping off a building” because of the misses. “We feel very lucky and very fortunate that we’re still playing,” he said, “but the fact of the matter is that we’re still playing.”

They will face Gonzaga for the national title Monday night, a dichotomy of lineages between one of college basketball’s most successful programs and a first-time participant.

Meeks led the Tar Heels (32-7) the entire night. He came in averaging 12.3 points and took only four shots in last weekend’s win over Kentucky, but against Oregon, he shot 11-for-13 and had 25 points and 14 rebounds. “I just knew that we had to be aggressive in the paint,” he said. “Coach told us it was going to be a man’s game, and us big men had to do a great job on the inside.”

Not all of them did.

“I thought we had a big advantage inside,” Williams said. “[Meeks] was our only guy inside who was scoring. We needed more offense from Kennedy tonight than he had in most games, and he stepped up and gave us that.”

Dorsey scored 21 points for Oregon (33-6). Dylan Ennis had 18 and Bell added 13 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. North Carolina overcame a combined 3-for-26 shooting night from Berry and Isaiah Hicks.

It didn’t take long after the game for the questions about last year’s loss to pop up.

“I think this is maybe like the 50th time that we’ve kind of answered a question about that,” North Carolina junior forward Justin Jackson (22 points) said when asked the inevitable. “At the end of the day, it’s a different team, a different year.”

Said Meeks, “I think you’re always going to have that in the back of your mind because it was a heartbreaking experience for us. We came so far last year.”

Now they’ve matched that, come just as far this year. A little further, and there will be something else to ask them about.

New York Sports