By Turner Walston
Way back on November 8, 2013, Carolina men's basketball hosted the Oakland Golden Grizzlies in the season opener. It was a typical game one: The Tar Heels went to the halftime locker room ahead by 37 and would go on to win by 23 points. James Michael McAdoo led the Tar Heels with 21 points. Marcus Paige and J.P. Tokoto had 14 and 13, respectively. Brice Johnson had 10, and so did Kennedy Meeks. The then-290-pound freshman checked into the game three and a half minutes in. Oakland's Dante Williams tossed up a jumper that missed, and Meeks hauled in his first career rebound. He would finish with five on the night in 13 minutes off the bench.
One thousand, two hundred and twenty-seven days later, Meeks started Sunday's NCAA Tournament second round game with Arkansas. In the years since that first career game, he'd shed weight and put on muscle, becoming a force in the lane and a monster on the glass. He began the game with the Razorbacks with 989 boards for his career. With 11 more, he'd have 1,000.
The Tar Heels would need all 11. His first board came on an offensive rebound, a tip-in to make the score 10-2. He rebounded a missed Moses Kingsley jumper next, then got an offensive board on a missed follow shot. He then pulled in a Jaylen Barford miss on the defensive end. Later in the half, Meeks got two offensive rebounds in two seconds as the ball refused to fall through. A tip-in pushed the Tar Heel lead to 37-30 before the half ended.
Carolina had led by as many as 17 points in the first half, at 30-13. A furious Arkansas rally meant that the Tar Heels' lead was just five at intermission. It would be important to come out of the break with a bang, for the Tar Heels to assert themselves as a #1 seed, to put the Razorbacks away.
They didn't do that. Meeks got his eighth rebound on Arkansas' first second-half possession. That led to a run-out and an Isaiah Hicks dunk. A Meeks jumper moments later pushed the lead back to nine. The Tar Heels were flirting with comfort. Comfort spurned their advances.
The teams traded jumpers, but from there, the underHogs scored seven straight points. Carolina's only scores for five minutes and 42 seconds of game time were a pair of Justin Jackson free throws. Meanwhile, Arkansas was scoring. They turned a nine-point deficit at 44-35 to a four-point lead at 46-50.
Carolina tied the score on a Luke Maye jumper and a pair of Nate Britt free throws, but the Hogs kept at it. Just when the Heels looked like they would take command, a bizarre sequence in which the ball bounced off the toe of Theo Pinson ended with a Razorback three.
Meeks, meanwhile, kept at it on the glass. He scored off of an offensive rebound to bring the Heels within two at 53-55, then tied it with a lay-up a minute later. Meeks sat at 998 rebounds, though, when Arkansas led by five with 208 seconds to play.
After Joel Berry missed a three-pointer, Isaiah Hicks hauled in the offensive rebound and shot a jumper. His attempt was swatted into the Tar Heel bench by Kingsley. Berry hit two free throws, and on Carolina's next trip down, Hicks went up against Kingsley again. This time, he rolled off a screen for Justin Jackson. Jackson found him, and Hicks flushed the dunk, right over the top of Kingsley.
Hicks' two free throws after a foul on a defensive rebound gave the Tar Heels a one-point lead. But Arkansas had been hot, and lucky. Daryl Macon had hit two of his four three-point attempts on the night, and he hunted another. But Meeks stepped out and got a piece of the ball. Out of bounds off of Arkansas.
Depending on what happens over the next ten days or so, the next possession could potentially go down in Carolina history. With the ball up one, Berry drove to his right. Shot clock winding down, he ran into Arkansas' Adrio Bailey. Berry tossed a prayer, up and off the backboard. Meeks was positioning himself inside of Kingsley. He rose and tipped the ball in off the glass with his left hand. That was rebound 999.
"Coach always says to get in front of the defender when the shot goes up," Meeks said. "And we do tip drills all the time in practice, so it was something that I was used to, and I just followed through with it."
Kingsley went to the line 19 seconds later, with a one-and-one opportunity. He missed the front end, and Meeks grabbed it. Number 1,000.
After a pair of Hicks free throws, a Jackson steal and dunk sealed a hard-fought seven-point win and a trip to Memphis and the Sweet Sixteen for Carolina. The Tar Heels had outscored the Razorbacks by 12 points over the final three minutes. They'd locked down on defense, secured rebounds and made tough shots. Sure, they'd been lucky, too.
"The last seven possessions, we scored six times," Roy Williams said. "The last seven possession, they didn't score. So that's some toughness there, too. I'll still say I feel lucky. But you know what? Luck is, what's that old saying? Preparation meets opportunity. And the guys stepped up and made some plays, too."
Nearly four years of preparation by Kennedy Meeks met the opportunity in front of him on Sunday night. He entered the 2016-17 season with 674 rebounds. He now has 326 to date in his senior year, 55 better than any other season. At 1,000 rebounds, he is ninth all-time at Carolina, with a realistic shot to move as high as fifth. He's past Eric Montross and breathing down the neck of Brad Daugherty and Mitch Kupchak. Staring up at Antawn Jamison and Brice Johnson. That pudgy freshman who we all thought should run more, should try harder, should do better? He's among several guys whose jerseys hang in the Smith Center rafters. That's the company that he's in now.
Certainly Meeks' 11 rebounds weren't the sole reason that Carolina advanced past upset-minded Arkansas on Sunday night. Nate Britt came off the bench to play tight defense against the Razorbacks' guards. Jackson kept setting the single-season Carolina record for made three-point attempts. Berry had ten hard-earned points, and Hicks hit four clutch free throws in the final two minutes. Meeks himself scored 16 points, his tournament high, and had his 12th double-double of the season.
"To have that milestone is big," Meeks said, "but shout out to Justin for hitting the most career threes in a season. It was a career night for a lot of people, but I think it was a career night for our team, because we fought back, and we have an opportunity that most teams don't have, and that's staying here and hopefully fighting for the next game."
But this year, no two rebounds were bigger than the 999th and 1,000th of Kennedy Meeks' career to help Carolina advance to the NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal. One thousand is a major milestone. Ain't it grand?
Oh, and ain't it sweet?