His team grabbed just as many rebounds as their counterparts, but they were one rebound away from a possible date with destiny Monday night.
Keeping North Carolina off of the boards in the final six seconds denied the Ducks a chance of some kind of buzzer beater and it’ll be the Tar Heels facing Gonzaga for the national title after a 77-76 win over Oregon in Phoenix.
The Ducks were playing catch up for the entire second half, but they could never seem to get that one big shot to pull themselves within a one-possession game. The shots that were falling earlier in the tournament were missing their mark.
Oregon shot 3-of-17 from long range in the second half. It’s final three came off of Dorsey’s hand with 46 seconds left to make it 77-74.
The Ducks decided to play defense and after Theo Pinson missed a shot with 20 seconds to go, Jordan Bell rebounded the ball after a mad scramble, found Payton Pritchard who then found Keith Smith all by his lonesome for the lay-in to make it a one-point game with 5.8 on the clock.
Tyler Dorsey fouled Kennedy Meeks, who missed both free throws. But UNC managed to slap the rebound away into Joey Berry’s arms, who was then fouled with four seconds to go. It was a huge mistake to be sure, but the Ducks still had a chance.
Berry missed the first free throw and then the second.
Inexplicably, Oregon failed to rebound again as the ball was batted towards mid court and the clock ran out.
Not making shots wasn’t the only thing that didn’t go Oregon’s way.
Dillon Brooks was held to just 10 points and Dorsey did score 21, but 12 of those points came at the charity stripe. Dylan Ennis added 18 points, while Bell scored 13 and pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds.
But Oregon couldn’t stop Meeks as the big 6-10 center scored 25 points to go with 14 rebounds. Justin Jackson added 22 points as well.
The Ducks showed early on that they might have a few butterflies fluttering as they compete in their first Final Four. The Ducks were committed seven turnovers in the first 10 minutes and 12 for the half. But it was their zone defense that had the Tar Heels confused and kept the score relatively low.
Once North Carolina figured out some things against the Oregon zone, the Tar Heels finally looked like themselves.
Ennis hit back-to-back threes with three minutes to go to give the Ducks a 30-22 lead, but after that, North Carolina ended the half on a 17-6 run to take a three-point lead at the break.
The Ducks had to feel somewhat good that neither Brooks or Dorsey did very little offensively in the first 20 minutes and yet, it was just a one-possession game. Brooks scored six points on 2-of-7 from the field and Dorsey’s four points came at the free throw line.
A lot was made out of North Carolina’s size advantage up front and the Ducks had to hold the Tar Heels off the boards and for the most part, Oregon managed the boards well. They actually out-rebounded UNC 19-16 in the first half.
As expected, Meeks killed the Ducks on the inside with 14 first half points on 6-of-7 from the field. The rest of the Tar Heels shot 28 percent from the field.
It was a cruel way for the season to end, but what a season it was. It’s way too early for Oregon to reflect on the year, but when they do, the Ducks will realize what a year it was. Going to its first Final Four since 1939 isn’t anything to sneeze at and neither is the school record 33 wins.
Next year might be a bit of a reset as Brooks, Dorsey and Bell will most likely leave early for the NBA, along with senior Chris Boucher, but Altman has managed to bring in another stellar recruiting class for 2017-18, so the reset might not be all that painful.
It can’t be as painful as watching a sure chance for a national title slip through its collective fingers.
~ Don Smalley