GLENDALE, Ariz. – All these North Carolina Tar Heels wanted – all they have ever, ever, ever wanted and worked and wished and waited for – was a second chance.
The chance to make it right this time. The chance to exorcise the ghost of Kris Jenkins. The chance to win the national championship that vanished last April like a handkerchief in a magic show.
“It’s a heartache you can’t erase,” Roy Williams said the other day. “It’s always going to be there.”
All they can do is replace that moment in the memory banks with a championship. And now they are but a game away. Maybe they got there ugly Saturday night. Maybe they were lucky to survive a very, very strange game.
“Doesn’t make any difference,” Williams said. “We’re still one of the two teams playing on Monday night.”
Indeed, if 2016 taught them anything, it’s that fortune and karma and finding a way can be the most powerful things of all this time of year.
“We’re back to where we want to be,” Joel Berry II said.
It ended Saturday night with the Tar Heels clinging to a 77-76 victory over Oregon they came so close to tossing away.
It ended with North Carolina scoring one field goal in the last seven minutes, and none in the last 5:50. It ended with the Tar Heels missing four free throws in the last five seconds, and is there a quicker way to see a narrow win turn into an agonizing loss? They did not have to pay for it because twice they slipped in to rebound missed free throws.
“Nobody wins a game like . . . well, I guess we did,” Theo Pinson said. “We don’t want to do that again.”
It ended with Oregon’s Jordan Bell, bent over in the corner, inconsolable, unable to take another step and leave the floor, the very picture how cruel the NCAA Tournament can be.
And it ended with the Tar Heels set to play Gonzaga, with a fresh shot at a championship on their minds, not Villanova.
“It’s a new game, a new team we’re playing,” Pinson said.
What got North Carolina through its own shooting meltdown? The little things that Williams cherishes and demands. Rebounding your own free throws, for instance. Some teams barely acknowledge it. Some teams take their players off the free throw line and cede any misses.
Not North Carolina.
“We don’t just line up there and turn around and start to go back,” Williams said.
There were 5.8 seconds left, and the Tar Heels were ahead 77-76 when Kennedy Meeks had two free throws. Meeks was the champion of the night with 25 points and 14 rebounds, but he missed both.
Oregon with a chance to win, right? No. Pinson tipped the rebound back, and Berry grabbed it.
There were four seconds left when Berry was quickly fouled and had two free throws. Surely that would do it. He missed both. Oregon still with a chance to win, right? No. Meeks grabbed the rebound over Bell.
“My heart was just beating,” Berry said later. “Theo saved Kennedy, and Kennedy saved me.”
Bell had 16 rebounds for Oregon Saturday night, and he was in prime position to get Berry’s miss but might have been a little deep.
“I just got behind him and the ball fell in my hands,” Meeks said. And that is why Bell sobbed in the corner of the court.”
“They told me they loved me, that it wasn’t my fault,” he said later of how his teammates soothed him when he finally could get to the locker room. “That it doesn’t come down to one play.”
As for the Tar Heels, maybe they didn’t understand how they could miss all those free throws with their second chance on the line, but they did understand what saved them.
“It’s the little things you work on throughout the whole year,” Berry said. “Sometimes you think about, `why is coach doing this?’ The there’s times like this, that is the reason we work on that all year.”
Said Pinson, “That just gives us another reason to listen to coach.”
Meeks, too. Williams benched him for a few moments in the Butler Sweet 16 game for not going at the boards strong enough. He had eight offensive rebounds alone Saturday, the last one maybe the most important of his career.
Something Williams said just the other day.
“If I, Roy Williams could only pick one thing, I would always pick rebounding as the most significant factor in determining who wins the game. Because I think the game’s pretty simple. You get it, I get it, you get it, I get it. The only way for me to get more opportunities is to get more offensive rebounds to get another shot and to make sure you don’t get more offensive rebounds.”
And so it came to be, that North Carolina shot 36.8 percent and lived to tell about it. That Oregon hit only three field goals in the last nine minutes, but cut a 10-point Tar Heels’ lead to one. And that the North Carolina team which beat Kentucky in the final seconds last week with a jumper, beat Oregon in the final seconds this week with two offensive rebounds.
“We needed a last-minute something today,” said Luke Maye, the Tar Heel who hit the Kentucky shot.
“The atmosphere is that we’re not done yet, I can kind of tell,” Berry said. “We did our usual jumping around (in the locker room afterward), but I feel a different vibe.”
That’s the vibe of the second chance. It’s here at last for North Carolina.