by Turner Walston
"You've just got to play," Theo Pinson said in the moments following Carolina's nail-biting 77-76 win over Oregon in the national semifinal. He was referring to his team's response to Oregon's furious rally, the one that saw the Ducks trim a six-point Carolina lead to just a single point in the last minute of play. The Tar Heels had kept Oregon at an arm's length throughout most of the second half, but the Ducks were threatening to spoil late.
The Tar Heels were tested by Oregon. They were brilliant at times and they were sloppy more times. They were pretty and they were ugly. But it's the Final Four. You've just got to play.
With three minutes and 43 seconds left in the first half, Oregon had jumped out to a 30-22 lead, and the Tar Heels were pretty awful up to that point. But in the timeout huddle, head coach Roy Williams reminded his team that they'd been in that situation before. "[He told us] to keep our poise," Nate Britt said. "We wanted to make sure that we kept attacking, because they had pressed us, slowed us down a little bit in that match-up zone and we weren't in attack mode. We wanted to change that and be in attack mode and be more of the aggressor."
And Britt was a part of that. The senior guard had been tentative in his first shift off the bench. He went without a field goal attempt in his first six minutes on the court. He committed a foul and missed a jumper in seven minutes before stepping out. But you've just got to play.
After that under-four timeout, Britt checked in and immediately made his presence known. He found Isaiah Hicks for a dunk. After committing a foul on Tyler Dorsey, hit stepped up and hit his only three-point attempt of the game. On Oregon's ensuing possession, Britt kept a hand in Dorsey's face and forced a miss, then grabbed the long rebound and found Kennedy Meeks for a lay-up. Britt had a hand in seven points of Carolina's 17-4 run to close the half with a three-point lead. He would have a big drive and score in the second half to push the Tar Heel lead to eight.
"It's the Final Four, so I think everyone has a few jitters when they first get out there, and I think I experienced that," Britt said of his early hesitance. "But Coach always says, 'When you get into the game, don't take the first shot, try to get into the flow of the game. You're too aggressive.' And I think that's just kind of the mindset that I've been playing with, and that's what I had tonight, so after getting into the flow, I was able to make a couple of big plays for us.
You've just got to play.
Justin Jackson just played Saturday night. The junior and ACC Player of the Year scored 22 points and was 4-9 from behind the arc. His ability to find shooting space and quickly take and make quality shots kept the Ducks from seizing momentum. Nine seconds after Dylan Ennis cut the Tar Heel lead to three at 48-45, Jackson spotted up and nailed a three-pointer. After two Oregon free throws on their next trip, Jackson did it again.
"I have confidence in myself, and Coach has confidence in me," Jackson said. "He always says not many guys can shoot, one pass and a shot, or a pass ahead on a press and shoot it, but for me, I have confidence in myself to step up and hit them, and obviously my teammates do, because they found me. So for me, it's just a step up and knock 'em down."
You've just got to play.
Even as the Ducks were breathing down their necks, even as Oregon hit shot after shot to give themselves a chance late, even as some costly turnovers gave Oregon those chances, the Tar Heels had to remain poised and play basketball. If any one play goes the Tar Heels' direction –a rebound to the Heels instead of Jordan Bell with 1:20 to go; a connection from Jackson to Joel Berry against the press instead of an overthrow out of bounds; a made Theo Pinson lay-up after a drive with 18 seconds to play –the game is not as tense as it is. But despite that adversity, you've just got to play.
And that's Pinson not giving up on an offensive rebound, batting the ball out to Joel Berry after a Kennedy Meeks miss from the free throw line. "I don't think [Jordan Bell] thought I was going to crash, because we didn't crash that much before in the game," Pinson said. At the moment when he didnt' make contact on me, at first I was like, 'OK, I can get a hand on it,' and I got a good hand on it."
That's Meeks himself out-hustling Bell for the ball to seal the victory after Berry missed the second of two free throws. "I felt like Jordan kind of went in a little farther than I expected to try to get the ball in the front of the rim instead of on the left side of the goal, so I just tried to bury him a little bit and get the ball," Meeks said. He got the ball out to Pinson, who dribbled out the clock.
Kennedy Meeks was a monster on Saturday. His 25 points tied a career high and eight of his 14 rebounds were twice as many as anyone else on the court. The Tar Heels had 19 second-chance points and needed every one of them. "I just thought he was sensational around the basket, not only on the offensive boards, but on the defensive boards, both," Williams said of Meeks. "I'm sure he's got tremendous focus as a senior and so do the other teams. A lot of times, it's just are you playing well and that was one specific night." He's just got to play.
There were 153 points scored in Saturday night's second semifinal. Carolina ended up on the right end just by making the little plays, by relying on their experience and poise. Even as Berry and Isaiah Hicks were off offensively, even as the Tar Heels missed four free throws in the game's final five seconds, they found a way to Monday because Theo Pinson and Kennedy Meeks just played.
"You've just got to play. As you can see we were still focused by just making a play and getting the tip-out and the rebound," Pinson said. "It's just little plays you've got to make. We usually make them, and next game we're just going to try to make the plays."
The Tar Heels will play in the final college basketball game of the year Monday night. For the second straight season, they are 40 minutes away from a potential national championship. Carolina has the experience, the savvy, the talent to defeat Gonzaga. But they can't win the game on the tip-off. Every offensive possession, every defensive hold, every loose ball, rebound and tie-up on the final Monday of the season, they've got to be themselves and do the things that led them to the brink of an NCAA Tournament championship.
They've just got to play.