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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC men's basketball back in national title game after 77-76 win over Oregon

North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks (3) shoots over Oregon forward Jordan Bell (1) in the teams' Final Four matchup on April 1 in Phoenix.
North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks (3) shoots over Oregon forward Jordan Bell (1) in the teams' Final Four matchup on April 1 in Phoenix.

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — With a possible date with redemption a few days away, the top-seeded North Carolina men's basketball team locked in and clipped the No. 3 seed Oregon Ducks, 77-76, in the Final Four on Saturday night. 

With tens of thousands watching from the stands inside University of Phoenix Stadium, the Tar Heels looked like they belonged on the biggest of stages once again.

What happened?

The Tar Heels looked ready to roll from the opening tip, starting the game on a 5-0 run, but things turned ugly quick. 

Over the first 8:10 of the game, North Carolina was 3-of-17 from the field. But the Tar Heels remained tied with the Ducks heading into the under-12 media timeout thanks to a handful of Oregon turnovers. 

The Ducks worked out of their funk soon, though, and took an eight-point lead with four minutes left. Facing its largest deficit of the tournament so far, UNC locked in and finished the half on a 17-6 run thanks to some inspired play from seniors Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks.

North Carolina carried the momentum into the second half, as it answered a quick Oregon bucket to open the period with seven straight points.  

A three by Dylan Ennis cut the North Carolina lead to 48-45, but Justin Jackson answered with a three to put UNC up six. Less than a minute later, he hit another from deep to extend the lead to seven points. 

Oregon hung around for the remainder of the game, at one point cutting the UNC lead to just one with less than ten seconds left, but a pair of huge offensive rebounds after missed free throws locked up the victory for UNC.

Who stood out?

Meeks was the most consistent Tar Heel in the first half, racking up 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting. And as the second half opened, he picked up right where he left off. He scored North Carolina's first four points, giving him 18 points — his most ever in an NCAA Tournament game — with 17:56 left in the contest.

After Meeks checked out after picking up his third foul, Justin Jackson showed that the work he put in during the offseason is still paying off. 

After a relatively quiet first half, the junior wing from Tomball, Texas, exploded in the second. He made his first three three-point attempts to open the period, and he was able to somewhat lock down the hot hand of Oregon's Tyler Dorsey.

On the biggest stage of the season so far, Jackson lived up to the billing.

When was it decided?

Oregon cut the game to lead to one with 5.8 seconds left after a layup by Keith Smith. The ducks then fouled Meeks, giving the senior a chance to ice the game at the free-throw line. 

He missed both, but Theo Pinson saved the day by tapping the offensive rebound back out to Joel Berry. Berry missed both as well, but Meeks returned the favor with an offensive rebound of his own to seal the deal.

Why does it matter?

North Carolina was plenty excited to get back to its second straight Final Four, but anything short of cutting down the nets would have been deeply disappointing for this team. 

The stakes were at their highest Saturday night, and the Tar Heels — led by seniors Meeks, Britt and Hicks — made sure they'd live to fight in the national title game for the second year in a row.

Now all UNC has to do is make sure things don't end the way they did last season.

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Where do they play next?

With the win, the Tar Heels advance to Monday's national title game, where they will play Gonzaga — who bested South Carolina earlier in the day. 

North Carolina has only played the Bulldogs twice before. In the two teams' last meeting, UNC defeated Gonzaga, 98-77, in the Sweet 16 of the 2009 NCAA Tournament. 

Monday's game will tip at 9:19 p.m. EST.

@jbo_vernon

sports@dailytarheel.com