Board, another board, and Tar Heels escape
PHOENIX — Some losses are difficult to digest. Some are of the gut-wrenching variety.
Then there was Oregon's 77-76 defeat to North Carolina in Saturday night's NCAA Tournament semifinals, a setback that will stick in the Ducks' craw for some time.
When it was over, there was a stunned feeling in the Oregon locker room as players met with members of the media. Dylan Brooks spoke in hushed tones through sniffles. Payton Pritchard fought to find the right words — any words.
Jordan Bell sat back deep in his locker, wishing he were anywhere but there, a couple of tears running down his cheek, the brunt of a brutal finish on his shoulders.
"I wish I had something to say that would make them feel better," coach Dana Altman said. "It hurts."
It came down to four straight missed free throws by North Carolina in the final 5.8 seconds — four in a row! And a pair of offensive rebounds that saved the day for the Tar Heels, sending them into Monday night's championship game matchup with Gonzaga.
For want of a block-out, one of the most fundamental plays in basketball.
"We're relieved," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said in a postgame press conference down the hall from the Oregon locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium. "We feel very lucky, fortunate we're still playing."
The Tar Heels are fortunate. They shot .368 from the field, botched four late attempts at the charity stripe and still survived for another day.
North Carolina led 77-76 after Oregon's Keith Smith converted a layup. The Ducks intentionally fouled Tar Heel center Kennedy Meeks with 5.8 seconds remaining. He missed both free throws. But on the second one, North Carolina's 6-6 guard, Theo Pinson, reached over the 6-9 Bell and slapped the rebound out to teammate Joel Berry, who was fouled with 4.0 seconds left.
Berry missed one, then two attempts at the line. But after the second, Meeks — lined up next to Bell — reached over the UO junior, secured the rebound and passed out to a teammate as the final seconds wound to zero.
Game over. Season over for the Ducks.
Bell was beside himself in grief as he relived the nightmare with reporters.
"We talked a lot about rebounding, about boxing out," he said. "This was the moment that mattered. I didn't do my job when we needed it the most."
There was plenty of irony, because Bell grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds to go with 13 points and four blocked shots in a stellar performance. He had averaged 12.5 boards in the previous six postseason games.
"Jordan feels terrible," Altman said. "I told him, 'Buddy, you got 16 rebounds. We wouldn't have been in this position without you.'"
"It's not on Jordan," said Pritchard, the freshman point guard from West Linn. "The ball bounced the wrong way. Jordan is going to play this game for a long time. He's talented, a great teammate. It just didn't go our way the last second."
"Those rebounds at the end didn't define the game," Brooks said. "We messed up on a lot of communication on defense, gave (the Tar Heels) open shots, and they made us pay. That's a good team, but they almost gave it to us, and we couldn't finish the game."
North Carolina came in as the No. 1 rebounding team in the country, outboarding opponents by a whopping 13 a game. The Ducks gained a draw on the boards Saturday night, 43-43. But the Tar Heels grabbed 17 off the offensive glass, eight by Meeks. The 6-10 senior was the man of the hour, finishing with 25 points on 11-for-13 shooting to go with 14 boards and three blocks.
"He's a big presence, 260 pounds, throwing his weight around," Brooks said. "He was the biggest man on the floor."
Literally, and figuratively.
"Meeks controlled everything inside," Williams said. "He was just sensational."
Most of his teammates were not. Small forward Justin Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, scored 22 points on 6-for-13 shooting after a slow start. But Berry made just 2 of 14 shots, power forward Isaiah Hicks only 1 of 12. Besides Meeks and Jackson, the Tar Heels were 8 of 42 from the field.
Oregon shot poorly, too — .379 from the field, and only 3 for 18 from 3-point range in the second half.
Tyler Dorsey, who had put together seven straight 20-point games in the postseason, was 3 for 13. Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, was 2 for 11.
"It was one of those games where the shots weren't falling," Brooks said. "I was trying to get my teammates involved, trying to do the little things. But I feel like I let my team down."
Oregon had 16 turnovers, 12 in the first half, leading to 20 North Carolina points.
"The turnovers really hurt us," Altman said. "We didn't get enough opportunities. We had 10 less shots than than they did, and the turnovers were a big part of that."
The Ducks did make free throws, though — 25 of 28. Dorsey and Brooks combined to make 18 of 18.
"We caught them on a night when they didn't shoot very well," Williams said. "But boy, they made free throws."
The Tar Heels seemed to have the game in hand, leading 77-71 inside the final minute. Then Dorsey rattled around a 3 that seemed to touch every bit of iron before falling through the net, trimming the margin to 77-74 with 45 seconds remaining.
"There was no way that ball was going to go in the basket," Williams said. "It bounced around, bounced around, went below the rim and crawled back over the top and went in. That was pretty weird."
So, too, was the scene in the final seconds, with the Ducks hoping they were a team of destiny, wishing for a final shot that never came.
Oregon never quit. North Carolina used an 11-2 run at the end of the first half to go into intermission ahead 39-36, opened an eight-point lead to start the second half, had the difference up to 10 with 8 1/2 minutes left.
"Our guys are great competitors," Altman said. "That was the greatest characteristic they had. And they showed some of it tonight. They wouldn't give in.
"They're going to look back and it's going to hurt, because we didn't play very well at times. But I can't fault their competitiveness. I can't fault their effort. I wish we could have been a little sharper. But I'm sure Roy feels the same way."
Bell, of course, was beating himself up afterward.
"It's in his head right now," Dorsey said, "but it will heal. He knows he didn't lose us that game. It was everybody. We all could have done more. We just came up one point short."
The Ducks had their chances on a night when they played in front of a Final Four crowd of 77,612, with millions more watching at home on television. The chance to set up an all-Northwest showdown with Gonzaga for the national championship was theirs for the taking.
By a whisker, it didn't happen.
"A close loss like this drives coaches crazy," Altman said. "It drives players crazy, because you think about every little thing. It really messes with you for a little bit longer."