By Adam Lucas
PHILADELPHIA—As Roy Williams addressed his team after Carolina’s 101-86 win over Indiana, he had plenty of history to mention.
The head coach looked through the stat sheet. He told his team about Brice Johnson’s 20-point, 10-rebound performance. That means Johnson now has 22 double-doubles during his senior season, which ties Billy Cunningham for the most in a single season in Carolina history. Think of all the Tar Heels who have come along since 1964, and not a single one of them has been able to tie Cunningham. Brice Johnson did.
The Tar Heels responded with a nice cheer for Johnson’s 20/10.
Williams told his squad about Marcus Paige’s 21 points, six assists and zero turnovers. That means Paige passes Michael Jordan on Carolina’s all-time scoring list. Sure, Paige pointed out that Jordan played three years and Paige has played four. Who cares? How many people can ever say they passed Michael Jordan in anything? Marcus Paige can.
There was another polite cheer for Paige’s 21, including six three-pointers.
And then Williams read the stat line for a gentleman named Kennedy Meeks: 15 points, nine rebounds, four of them offensive. He didn’t pass anyone on any career lists. He didn’t elbow aside Michael Jordan.
It didn’t matter. That’s when the team really exploded, roaring for Meeks as if he’d just become Carolina’s all-time leading scorer.
“It felt good,” Meeks said of the reaction his performance drew from his teammates.
It should have. The Tar Heel junior has had a rough stretch—a stretch that, to be honest, included parts of the first half, when he shot 3-of-6 and missed a couple shots he probably should have converted.
But Isaiah Hicks was saddled with significant foul trouble, so the Tar Heels needed Meeks. Keep an eye on the first UNC possession after halftime. Williams usually has specific intentions with that possession. He designs it for a player he feels needs to get on track, or for a matchup where he thinks the Tar Heels have a decided advantage. Friday night, that play ran through Meeks, who scored through contact just 15 seconds into the half.
Williams was right. His team would need Meeks. Because Hicks picked up his fourth foul less than 30 seconds after entering the game in the second half, rendering him virtually invisible for the remaining 14:22. Carolina had a ten-point lead at that juncture, and suddenly they needed the player who’d entered the game 10-of-26 from the field in the postseason, and had played just 21 combined minutes in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Let's be honest: is there anyone on the entire team you've yelled at more in your living room over the past month than Kennedy Meeks? And then, in a win-or-go-home game, there he was.
Meeks logged 29 minutes against the Hoosiers alone, his most since playing 30 against NC State on Jan. 16 and his second-most this season. He scored (15 points). He rebounded (nine of them). He got to the free throw line, perhaps the best indicator of how aggressive he was offensively, taking seven free throws and making five of them. That ties for the most charity tosses he’s had in a game this season—the only other time he took seven was in the season opener, four long months ago against Temple.
His teammates saw this coming. Senior Justin Coleman has been Meeks’ roommate throughout the postseason. “I’ve seen it coming with him,” Coleman said. “Even today during the day, I could tell he was doing a lot better. You can always tell with him. You can see it in the way he walks. I know him by his mannerisms, and he just seemed like he was in a better mood.”
Theo Pinson could tell even at one of the moments that might have made you groan while watching the game. On Carolina’s very first possession, Meeks launched a midrange jumper. He missed, but that was all the evidence Pinson needed.
“At that point, I knew he was there,” Pinson said. “It might not have been the shot we wanted, but it meant he was engaged, and he wasn’t shying away from the basketball.”
He was even more engaged in the second half, including one possession when he essentially outfought the entire Indiana team while the Tar Heel perimeter players launched three separate three-pointers. All of them missed, but Meeks kept the ball alive every time, eventually earning a couple of free throws for Hicks.
“I just think I’m in a better place,” Meeks said. “I have a different mindset.”
That comes after a week that saw the Charlotte native have some of his best practices, diving on the floor for loose balls and putting aside his individual struggles to focus on the good of the team.
That’s the kind of effort you need in order to win six games in a tournament like this. And with only eight teams remaining, it’s realistic to start to talk about winning the entire thing. One of these eight is going to do it. Somewhere in that run, one of those teams is going to get unexpected contributions from unexpected players. That’s what happened to 2005 Carolina in the regional semifinal, when Raymond Felton fouled out and Melvin Scott hit crucial late-game free throws against Villanova. That’s what happened in 2009, when Ed Davis posted nine points and seven rebounds off the bench in a tight win over LSU.
It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t even have to be that memorable. It just has to help the team win, and that’s what Meeks did against Indiana. He wasn’t the headliner, but he was part of the victory, and that’s all anyone on the roster wants to do in late March.
“My teammates still believe in me even when I’m not playing the best,” Meeks said. “That’s all you look for in a brotherhood and coaches and mentors.”