GLENDALE, ARIZ. — Everything was hitting Kennedy Meeks at once: the sweat droplets splashing his cheeks, the stray shouts and steady boos from a green-and-yellow-clad army of Oregon fans inside University of Phoenix Stadium — but maybe more than anything else, the magnitude of this moment.
Hit these two free throws, with 5.8 seconds left to play, and the North Carolina men’s basketball team would go up three points over Oregon. Hit these two free throws, and the Ducks would only have seconds to attempt a last-ditch, full-court heave.
Hit these two free throws, and UNC would almost certainly play in its second consecutive national championship game.
So Meeks walked up the line, rows and rows of open palms from rows and rows of UNC students all staring back at him. He grabbed the ball, looked up at the net, exhaled — then let it fly.
And watched the ball clank off the front rim before it dropped to the court. No good.
“I was surprised that Kennedy missed that,” Nate Britt said. “Because his first shot, I was like, ‘Cash,’ and then he missed it."
“And then he missed the second one, as well.”
Unlike the first, though, it didn’t drop to the court. Instead, with the Tar Heels clinging to a 77-76 lead, the ball dropped a much shorter distance to the outstretched fingertips of a leaping Theo Pinson. He somehow navigated himself through a forest of other arms and slapped the ball back, hard, into the waiting arms of Joel Berry.
Suddenly, Berry had the same opportunity his counterpart had just squandered — two free throws to punch a ticket to the national title game.
So Berry strolled up the line, just as Meeks had done seconds earlier. He too stared at the rim. He too let out a sigh, a deep breath to steady himself.
And then, he too watched as his first attempt dropped not through the net, but off the rim and onto the hardwood.
He reset himself at the line, reassumed his position with his toes just behind the painted stripe. And then he shot again — and again, he missed.
The ball started falling, crashing toward a bevy of Oregon jerseys, with UNC’s dream of returning to the national championship game crashing alongside it with every inch the ball fell.
Only it wouldn't crash at all. It was cradled, both the ball and UNC’s season, in the mammoth arms of Meeks, himself a master of the offensive rebound. Meeks sucked the ball into him, found Pinson waiting outside the arc and then zipped the pass out to his teammate.
And then, everything hit again: Chests colliding in exuberance and hugs; the ball slamming down one last time after Pinson threw it in the air in celebration; then, lastly, the realization — they had done it. The Tar Heels had actually made it back to Monday night.
“That pretty much saved the game,” Berry said. “Theo saved Kennedy, and Kennedy saved me.”
In the postgame locker room, there was dancing and dress clothes and discussions of almost coming up short. Almost. But these Tar Heels — in spite of four missed free throws to end the game, in spite of an abysmal offense performance, in spite of injuries and inconsistency — had stayed true to themselves, and it paid off.
This season’s UNC team hasn’t always played terrific defense, or made boatloads of three-pointers, or even been a well-oiled machine for long portions of the season.
But the one thing the Tar Heels do pride themselves on is their offensive rebounding. And when they most needed something to be proud of, there it was waiting for them.
“I’m still a little down on myself because I did miss those free throws,” Meeks said after the game. "But what a way to make up for it... I got that rebound.”
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