Meeks' tip-in helps UNC escape game with Sweet 16 berth

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North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks (3) is embraced by guard Kenny Williams on the bench at the end of the team's victory of Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Greenville on Sunday.

Kennedy Meeks barely did it, too. If he took a second longer? The shot clock — and possibly the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s hopes of returning to the Final Four — would have expired.

“Thank God Kennedy was right there,” Joel Berry said after UNC’s 72-65 win over Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The poke or tip or whatever else you want to call it came with less than a minute left in the game, UNC leading by just one. This, of course, was after the Tar Heels’ 17-point first-half lead turned to mush, after their offense skipped the tracks and wrecked itself. Considering the abomination of an offense the team trotted out for most of the game, that one point in itself might have been divine intervention.

And even with that slim cushion, UNC’s offense couldn’t sort itself out. As the shot clock wound down, Berry found himself trapped, dribbling to nowhere with no clear option of what to do.

So, he did the only thing he realistically could — he just chucked up a brick, almost an overhand throw of a shot with no chance of going in. It soared over the rim, bounced off the backboard, and finally fell back to the ground. A shot clock violation, it seemed, was unavoidable.

“It was a horrible shot on my part,” Berry said, “but I tried my best to get it up on the backboard.”

That’s what the team has been conditioned to do all season when things look rough: Toss it into the paint and hope a big man can clean up the garbage.

And with the season on the line, Meeks did. He bodied his defender, lept in the air, and right as the shot clock clicked down from one to zero, he poked the ball back up in the air.

It went up. Hit the backboard. Then came down — through the net.

“The ball just fell in my hands,” Meeks said, “and I followed through with it.”

That rebound — the 999th of his career — put the Tar Heels up three with time winding down. Arkansas missed both its free throws on the next possession, and as the second of the two banked to the right, Meeks was there to scoop that rebound, too — and give himself an even 1,000 rebounds in his four years.

And so, with its season on the line and nothing working, maybe UNC just got lucky. Maybe Meeks was just in the right place at the right time. Or maybe, it’s the opposite: Maybe the things the Tar Heels have preached all season long, mainly to ram it inside when all else fails, won out in the end.

Maybe a poke — with everything on the line — was exactly what UNC planned.

“It would have made me feel a heck of a lot better if he hadn’t just tipped it with his left hand,” head coach Roy Williams said.

“But it went in.”

@BrendanRMarks

sports@dailytarheel.com

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