GLENDALE, ARIZ. — Early Saturday morning, somewhere in the Kimpton Hotel Palamar Phoenix Cityscape, Kennedy Meeks rolled over in bed.
It was game day — finally time for him and his North Carolina men’s basketball teammates to take on Oregon in the Final Four. Finally time, he thought, to earn a place in Monday night’s national championship game.
So Meeks turned to his roommate this road trip, Shea Rush, and the two turned on some music. Specifically, Drake’s new album, “More Life.” Even more specifically, “Passionfruit,” the third track on the album.
That may not matter much. What matters is what came after: When, as lyrics and beats filled the hotel room, Meeks turned to Rush and said something — something, it turns out, that was more premonition than posturing.
“First thing he said when he woke up this morning was, ‘I’m locked in,” Rush said after UNC’s 77-76 win that earned a spot in its second consecutive national championship game. “He talks sometimes, but his play talked today.”
It’s true. Meeks led all scorers Saturday night with 25 points, a career-high mark for the senior forward and one of UNC’s more emotional players. On top of that, he added 14 rebounds, none more notable than the game-sealing offensive board with less than five seconds left in the game.
“I was just feeling it today,” Meeks said of his early morning message. “My main goal was just to help my team in any way I can.”
Usually when a player says something to that effect, it’s just talk — a trite sound bite with no real meaning. But this NCAA Tournament, Meeks has not only taken that message to heart; he’s embodied it.
Look no further than UNC’s second game against Arkansas. With his teammates seemingly unable to score against the Razorbacks, Meeks responded. He scored what was then an NCAA Tournament career-high 16 points as the Tar Heels escaped with a seven-point win.
Then the next weekend, with a trip to the Final Four on the line against Kentucky — with teammates Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Luke Maye carrying the offensive burden — Meeks turned his attention to another aspect of the game: rebounding. He ended the night with 17 boards, the most he’s ever had in a single game in his four years as a Tar Heel.
That, of course, brings us to Saturday night.
And with stakes higher than they’ve been all season for UNC, Meeks responded with his best performance yet — arguably, the best performance he’s had in four years.
With Berry’s ailing ankle sapping his jump shot, not to mention Isaiah Hicks’ complete non-impact, Meeks stepped into action. He posted up deep in the paint, bodying Oregon’s Jordan Bell backwards and toward the rim. Then, once he got there, he showed off the deft touch that’s been so characteristic of his four years in Chapel Hill, finishing a swath of layups and hook shots. All told, he made six of his seven shots before halftime, oftentimes the only sure thing UNC had on offense.
“If it wasn’t for Kennedy Meeks,” head coach Roy Williams said, “we wouldn’t have been in the basketball game.”
The rest of UNC’s playmakers woke up after intermission, but Meeks still had more offense to offer. He followed a Berry missed layup with a putback dunk just a few minutes into the half, and he had secured a double-double with more than 10 minutes left to play.
His third and fourth fouls would eventually park Meeks on the bench for the last stretch of the game, but with time winding down, he re-entered the game. His team needed him most then, to help close things out — after all, isn’t that what he’d said he would do?
So it was fitting, then, how this game eventually ended.
Meeks missed two free throws with seconds left that would have iced the game, but Theo Pinson tipped the ball out of the mosh and back to Berry. He, too, would get two tries to seal the win.
Then his first try rolled right and out. Then the second bounced off the rim and away, too, and suddenly, UNC needed a tip, a bobble — anything — to ensure Oregon never got off a final heave.
They needed Meeks, and for the last time Saturday night, he obliged, collecting Berry’s second miss and passing it away to run out the clock. The last few seconds ticked off. The buzzer blared. Then the senior mobbed his teammates to celebrate their second straight trip to the national title game.
Monday's game will be Meeks’ last in a North Carolina uniform, one way or the other. But before that night comes, there’s one more thing to mention about Meeks’ hotel room antics.
On Friday night, after team dinner, Meeks texted Rush and asked him to sneak a cookie or two up to their room. Rush snagged the sweets, a few chocolate chip cookies, and retreated back to their room.
The team says they’ve got to swipe desserts this way to avoid the wrath of Jonas Sahratian, the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator — the very man who has helped transform Meeks’ body since he first arrived to Chapel Hill as an overweight first-year.
But after the game Saturday night, as Sahratian paced the team locker room, he wasn’t concerned about an extra cookie here or there. Rather, he said the opposite.
“He can do whatever the hell he wants until Monday night,” Sahratian said of Meeks. “Today he was the MVP."
“Today he won the game for us.”
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