North Carolina missed 13 of its first 16 shots, converted 11 of its next 19 to take the lead and finally, frantically, held on to defeat the University of Oregon 77-76 Saturday night in Glendale, AZ., setting up an NCAA championship battle against the West’s No. 1 seed, Gonzaga, Monday night.
The No. 1 Tar Heels’ squeaker over the 33-6 and third-seeded Ducks, who battled back from a 74-69 deficit in the final three minutes, nixed what would have been the first matchup of West Coast teams in the tournament’s title game. No. 1 Gonzaga advanced with a 77-73 win over No. 7 South Carolina in the day’s first semifinal.
The Ducks sought to become the first Pac-12 Conference school to reach the final since the 2006 UCLA Bruins, but couldn’t sustain their early momentum and lost despite the fact the Tar Heels missed four free consecutive free throws in the final minute.
“We had our opportunities, but we just couldn’t come up with the key rebound,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman. “We pressed too much. But I can’t fault our competitiveness. We just didn’t make enough good plays. We didn’t win 33 games by accident.
“We had too many turnovers (16 for the Ducks, 11 for North Carolina) and made some really bad decisions. We didn’t give ourselves a good enough chance.”
Altman’s Ducks mounted a 27-22 lead at the 4:43 mark in the first half when Dylan Ennis made a 3-pointer and increased that to 30-23 at 3:43 on another Ennis 3-ball. But North Carolina forged a 39-36 lead at halftime and maintained a six- to seven-point margin for most of the second half by dunking for second-chance points and forcing turnovers.
Oregon, looking for a chance to get into the national title game for the first time since 1939, developed little momentum in the second half until late.
Down 74-69 with three minutes left, the Ducks closed to within 75-71 at 1:18 and to 77-74 with 42 seconds remaining on a Tyler Dorsey 3-ball, and finally to 77-76 with 5.2 seconds left.
With four seconds remaining, North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks snatched an offensive rebound off the second of two blown free throws by Joel Berry II, enabling the Tar Heels to run out the clock.
Meeks, who clanked two free throws inside five seconds, scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds while Justin Jackson added 22. Dorsey tallied 21 for the Ducks, who hit 37.9 percent of their shots.