HOUSTON — Before taking the court on Saturday at NRG Stadium, Kennedy Meeks received a familiar message from his favorite player.
“Be confident in yourself.”
The seemingly simple piece of advice represents the last thing Sean May, the Most Outstanding of the 2005 NCAA Tournament, has said to Meeks before the past four or five games.
But given Meeks’ struggles this season, North Carolina’s director of player personnel has used the expression to prevent the junior from criticizing himself.
“He’s good enough, and he knows he’s good enough,” May said. “I think sometimes when you don’t play as well, you have a tendency to get down on yourself. But the staff and the players on this team know how much we need him.”
And in Saturday’s 83-66 win over Syracuse in the national semifinals, Meeks supplied the Tar Heels with a much-needed boost, scoring 15 points and hauling in eight rebounds to help them advance to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova.
Meeks’ junior season has been marred by a left knee injury and offensive woes upon his return. But in UNC’s past three games, he’s averaged 13.3 points per game.
“I’m finally fighting back from injury and overcoming that is something I always wanted to do and always been working toward,” he said. “For it to finally be here at the right time and the right moment is something I’ll cherish forever.”
And on Saturday, Meeks' outburst came at a good time for the Tar Heels.
Senior forward Brice Johnson picked up his first foul just 90 seconds into the game and was charged for his second with 9:05 left until halftime, forcing him to stay on the bench for the rest of the period.
But Meeks assumed the scoring load.
The junior scored four of UNC’s first six points off tip-ins, and his jumper with 14:09 left in the first half snapped a 5-0 run by the Orange.
His biggest basket came minutes later, when he made a layup while being fouled to break an 18-all tie. His ensuing free throw sparked a crucial 9-0 run for the Tar Heels, as they never surrendered the lead for the rest of the night.
“He had a couple of times where guys got the ball down low, but he just kept playing through it,” said sophomore wing Justin Jackson. “I think that’s a little different than what he’s been in the past. Even with plays you might consider bad or mistakes, he just kept playing and kept his head up.”
After UNC defeated Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Johnson and Coach Roy Williams both expressed their frustration with Meeks for not jumping under the basket.
But with about 14 minutes left on Saturday, the junior received a tip pass from senior guard Marcus Paige and exploded to the rim for a hard dunk.
Besides Johnson’s comments after the Florida Gulf Coast game, Paige said teammates have steadily supported Meeks and only one person pushes the junior big man harder than them.
“Coach is probably on Kennedy harder than anybody on the team, and I don’t even think it’s close,” Paige said. “But I think the guys understand that, so we don’t really get on him. We just keep encouraging him. I know I told him on several occasions, ‘There’s going to be a time where we really need you, and we haven’t lost faith in you.’”
After returning from injury on Jan. 9, Meeks scored in double figures four times during ACC play. Following his 7-for-9 shooting performance on Saturday, he’s now accomplished that same task in three straight games.
And when UNC faces the Wildcats on Monday night with the national title at stake, Meeks and his teammates could rely on his continued success and newfound confidence.
“The tournament has been kind of a new life for him, honestly,” Paige said. “He’s exploding, he’s getting more rebounds, he’s being stronger with the ball around the basket. And that’s the Kennedy Meeks we need, that’s the reason we’re here.”
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