GLENDALE, ARIZ. — Theo Pinson scampered around the court, squeezing the final four seconds separating North Carolina from its second straight title appearance.
As he sprinted back toward midcourt and turned the corner, he nearly slipped. It would only be fitting — his team did everything it could to let the game slip away. Nearly six minutes without a field goal, two defensive lapses to let Oregon pull within one and four missed free throws in the final six seconds.
But he kept his balance, evading two desperate Duck defenders trying to send him to the stripe. Like his team, all Pinson had to do was escape.
“Make sure you don’t get fouled,” he thought, “because apparently we miss the free throws.”
On Saturday, it didn’t matter. It was sloppy, and it was thrilling. But the Tar Heels didn’t needed the theatrics of a Luke Maye buzzer beater. They just needed to survive.
“We almost blew it there at the end,” Maye said. “But luckily we pulled it out.”
Seconds earlier, Kennedy Meeks had gone to the line with a chance to ice the game. Oregon, trailing by one with 5.8 seconds left, was out of timeouts. Two free throws would surely send North Carolina back to the title game — the only stage where it could erase the pain from a year ago.
But Meeks missed the first. Then, he missed the second.
Pinson tipped the ball back to Joel Berry, who had his own chance to end it from the line. But he missed the first. Then, he missed the second.
Four seconds lingered on the clock. It was just enough time for a shot that could sever the Tar Heels’ season.
“Your first instinct is to think about last year,” sophomore Kenny Williams said, “and hope it doesn’t happen.
But Meeks corralled his 14th rebound of the game and kicked it back to Pinson, who scurried around the court before sending the ball flying into the stands.
“I just didn’t want to lose another game off a winning shot,” Berry said.
The Ducks never got another chance. Instead, North Carolina claimed its first one-point win in the NCAA Tournament since beating Villanova in 2005, and it withstood its worst shooting performance (36.8 percent) in a tournament win in 50 years.
It was a victory so narrow that the joy of returning to the title game felt muted by the shock of surviving Oregon.
"I’m pretty sure every Tar Heel fan in the nation is probably sitting on their couch just relieved, feeling relief,” Pinson said. “And I'll tell all them, 'Imagine if you're out there.'"
It was a collective sigh of relief for a team that has been on the cusp of defeat throughout the tournament. The Tar Heels nearly folded against Arkansas in the second round, and Kentucky seemed poised for an Elite Eight win before Maye vaulted UNC into the Final Four.
But margin of victory doesn’t mean anything during tournament time. Head coach Roy Williams still scribbled the number “2” on the whiteboard after the game, just as he did 364 days ago. And No. 1 seed Gonzaga — which faces UNC at 9:20 p.m. on Monday — is the only thing standing in the way of North Carolina’s run at redemption.
"Feel very fortunate we're still playing," Williams said. "But the fact of the matter is we're still playing."
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