In 2017, with less than 20 seconds left in the national title game, senior forward Kennedy Meeks blocked a floater attempted by Gonzaga star Nigel Williams-Goss. With the help of this critical play, UNC would go on to win its sixth national title, defeating Gonzaga 71-65.
Daily Tar Heel senior writer Shelby Swanson sat down with Meeks to talk about his tournament experience as a Tar Heel, as well as his advice to this year’s UNC team ahead of the Final Four.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Daily Tar Heel: What are your general thoughts on this UNC vs. Duke matchup?
Kennedy Meeks: I think that us playing Duke is the most exciting part about all of this. Us having the chance to beat them definitely would solidify coach (Hubert) Davis’ first year as a head coach. I mean, he’s already solidified it, but that would really stamp it. I think that it’s a chance for our school to have the bragging rights for a very, very, very long time.
DTH: One of March Madness’ most beloved qualities is that truly anything can happen. UNC made it to the Final Four this year as an No. 8 seed, and when you won the title in 2017, you were a No. 1 seed. How much do you think the ranking of teams and seeds matters come March?
KM: Oh, I don’t think the seeds matter at all. Of course, being the No. 1 seed is an honor. It’s like a trophy in itself because of how you played in the season before the tournament. It’s still important, but those Cinderella stories happen every year.
I’m not saying that our story was a Cinderella story, but (UNC) being the eighth seed and taking care of business and getting to the Final Four, it shocked a lot of people. Not so much us, as former players and fans, but a lot of other people were shocked. It’s pretty cool to see.
DTH: You were a member of the 2016 and 2017 UNC teams that made it to the Final Four. Can you describe the emotions involved in competing in the Final Four?
KM: The pressure’s at an all-time high. When you’re at those Final Four games, it’s a lot of sleepless nights.
You have your family there, you have fans from all over the world coming to see you. You’re playing at a football stadium. The pressure is really on, and you have to show up and show out.
In 2016, even though we had really had a chance to win that game, it wasn’t meant for us to win that year. The whole redemption story we had led us to the Final Four the following year and led us to a victory.
DTH: What was the mentality shift like for you guys in the 2016-2017 season?
KM: That summer, before that year, we all came back early, we all put the work in, and we all held each other accountable. That whole time, our main goal was to get redemption for Brice (Johnson), Marcus (Paige) and Joel (James), those guys who didn’t get a chance to experience victory at the last game of their senior season. That’s really what it was about, winning for ourselves, our former teammates, our coach, the fans and our families.
DTH: What do you remember about your block in the closing seconds of the 2017 national championship game against Gonzaga?
KM: You wouldn’t believe it, but it was really a blur. It was a reaction play. People ask me about the timing of the shot — I just played basketball and it just so happened to come to me at the right time and I made the play. The thing that I’m most proud about is getting the steal after that.
But it was one of those times where I knew basketball was for me, by that shot that I blocked, because it was definitely an important part of the game.
DTH: At what point in that game did you realize that you had won the national championship?
KM: It was the block and then the transition to Justin (Jackson) getting the dunk. And I saw Isaiah’s (Hicks) emotions, he was crying and stuff, so I was like, "Wow, we really did it."
And that’s why, if you look back at the clip, I was really just standing there. I wasn’t running around or anything, I was just taking in the moment. I couldn’t believe that we had set out a goal and accomplished it in the way that we did and with the team we had. People doubted us all year.
DTH: Could you describe that moment cutting down the net in 2017 and what that was like?
KM: It was surreal to look out in the stands and see all the celebrities, your family and people that you grew up watching see you play. When you’re on that ladder, looking out, you feel like you’re on top of the world. You feel like everything that you’ve worked for has paid off. Even though college isn’t the end of our careers, it’s the end of our college career, and it’s a bittersweet moment to end it that way.
DTH: Coach Davis has emphasized the importance throughout this postseason of wanting his players to make memories. What are some of your favorite Final Four memories both on and off the court?
KM: The bus ride to the gym before our Final Four practice was definitely memorable. We were on the bus playing music and everyone was excited and dancing. We were just taking in the moment as seniors. And for our teammates to see us happy and back to where we needed to be, just meant the world to us. Some other things — there’s a video of us at the end of 2017, at the championship, with this Chance the Rapper song. (Watching it) makes all of us tear up every time just with the lyrics of the song and how important winning was that year to us.
DTH: What advice would you give to your fellow Tar Heels as they head into this next game against Duke?
KM: I would say, just treat it like any other game. I know that it’s Duke, but at the same time they have to come out and play the same game that we do. Don’t overthink it, don’t put too much pressure on yourself as far as the opponent you’re playing.
We’re a great team, clearly, to make it this far, and we have the opportunity to play one more game after this, but we have to take care of business first. I think that the guys can do it, but they just have to stay locked in the entire game and buy into what coach Davis is saying in the clutch time.
DTH: If the team progresses past this next game, what advice would you give to them for the championship game?
KM: You’ll feel a lot of butterflies and a lot of jitters, so you have to find something that will bring you down and get you ready for the game. I’m sure those guys already have routines for that, so keep on with those routines. And just stay locked in, because we’re a great team and we have great players. Our starting five is amazing, the guys off the bench are amazing, and our walk-ons and guys who don’t play as much do a great job of cheering the team on. It would be important for everybody to buy in.
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