By Turner Walston
Just a few moments after time expired, after Carolina put the finishing touches on an 83-66 win over Syracuse in Saturday's national semifinal, a figure familiar to Tar Heel fans walked across the court, silently pumping his fist. Sean May has been here before. Eleven years ago, May was the Most Outstanding Player at the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis. Now in his first year as the director of player personnel, he's got a different perspective – quite literally.
“I was across from the bench, right behind the press,” he said. “Great seats, for a spectator.”
In his role, May can be only that: a spectator. He can lend insight from his experience, but can do no on-court instruction. The night before Saturday's game, he spoke to the team. “You can't build the moment up,” he said. “It's huge, and the stakes are high, and you have to be able to compartmentalize everything else that goes around the Final Four and into a national championship. When you step across those lines, it's just three refs, ten guys and four lines, and that's it. At that moment, it's just about playing, and it's just another game. And then, when the confetti hits, that's when you celebrate.”
The confetti will have to wait another 48 hours or so, as Villanova stands in the way of Carolina and a sixth NCAA Tournament. We'll get back to that. On Saturday, it was Syracuse's stubborn zone defense and ridiculously unlucky three-point shooting that plagued the Tar Heels for much of the first half. For 11 minutes, Carolina seemed to be testing the air in Houston's cavernous NRG Stadium. The Orange's tight zone discouraged entry passes and tempted the Tar Heels to shoot from distance. The results were not good. The Tar Heels did not have the same success that Villanova had enjoyed against Oklahoma (the Wildcats were 11-18 from three); Carolina was 0-10 from three in the first half and missed their first 12 attempts.
Syracuse, meanwhile, had made three from distance to keep pace with the Tar Heels, and the game was tied at 16 with 9:05 remaining in the first half when Brice Johnson picked up his second foul. So, Carolina was inept from three and having trouble getting the ball inside, and their first-team All-American would sit for the remainder of the half. Tough.
When Johnson sat down, Carolina went with a lineup of Joel Berry, Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. Carolina took the lead on three free throws and buckets from Berry and Meeks. Then, Joel James checked in for Meeks.
James came into Saturday's game averaging 2.2 points and 2.3 rebounds in 8.0 minutes per game. He had made 32 field goals in 38 games of this, his senior season. Twenty seconds into his first stint in the game, James turned around, rose and lifted a high-arcing shots that trickled through the net. Of course it did. The Carolina crowd erupted; James is an easy player to cheer for (“That's points they weren't counting on, huh?” said the gentleman sitting to my right). Ninety-eight seconds later, he would score again. “I took a couple shots and they fell in,” James would say later. “You saw what happened.”
James would check out, replaced by Meeks, after four minutes and twenty-five seconds of first-half playing time. He was two for two from the field with a rebound in that time.
“Joel says he's the best-shooting big. He proved himself tonight in this one,” Hicks said.
“It's tough playing spot minutes,” May said of James. “You never know when you're going to go and what your role is, so on a personal level, I'm ecstatic for him, because to come in and in that moment to play well, I was really happy for him.”
For his part, Meeks rose to the moment, motivated by May. Meeks was nine and ten years old when Sean May starred in a Tar Heel uniform. “Just telling us to continue to play hard. We're in a great position. We're where he was, and he gave us some scenarios of what he went through when he was a player, and that's what you look for, especially for me, him being my role model and my favorite player,” Meeks said. “It means a lot.”
In December and January, Meeks missed seven games due to a bruised bone in his knee. In that time, he saw Brice Johnson emerge as a bonafide All-American. Since his return, Meeks has sometimes looked out of place, perhaps struggling to find himself on a team so reliant on Johnson. Some recent match-ups have been a better fit for Isaiah Hicks' length and Theo Pinson's defensive ability than for Meeks. But with Syracuse denying the high post and the perimeter shots not falling, Meeks made an impact. Berry and Jackson probed the zone, slicing into it with drives, and when the defense collapsed, the Tar Heel big men were available for high-percentage shots. Carolina would score 50 points in the paint on the evening. Meeks matched the 15 points he'd scored in the Sweet Sixteen against Indiana, was the most he'd scored since 23 in his return to the starting lineup against NC State way back on January 16. He scored six points off of offensive rebounds and hauled in nine total.
“He's battled all year, and the one thing I told him is just to be confident in yourself and your abilities,” May said. “You're here for a reason. To see him go out and play that way, I really get excited.”
With made free throws, patient offense and a commitment to defense, the Tar Heels eventually pulled away. Johnson and Meeks would finish with 16 and 15 points, respectively, and Carolina would win by 17.
Monday night, these Tar Heels, the 2016 Tar Heels, will play for a national championship. Their director of player personnel, someone who has been there before, will watch them with pride. “I'm proud of them and happy for them at the same time, because they work so hard, and to be one game away from your ultimate goal, I know that feeling,” May said. “You're right there ,and with an opportunity to play Monday night. There's only two teams. Somebody's going to go home a champion, and these guys deserve it, so they've got to come out and play.”