For the second time in as many years, the North Carolina Tar Heels will play for a national championship.
Although it wasn't pretty, the South Region's No. 1 seed set up a title tilt with the Gonzaga Bulldogs thanks to a 77-76 win over the Oregon Ducks at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, on Saturday night.
Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks spearheaded the Tar Heels' effort, and they combined to convert 17 of the team's 25 made field goals.
Jackson totaled 22 points as the Heels' most effective perimeter scorer, while Meeks was a monster below the free-throw line while tying his career high with 25 points and 14 boards in a signature effort, per Sporting News' Sam Vecenie:
The ending was also a story of redemption for Meeks, as he bounced back from a pair of missed free throws with five seconds remaining to grab the game's decisive rebound off a missed Joel Berry II freebie, as NCAA March Madness documented on Twitter:
Fittingly, that sloppy ending served as something of a microcosm for the game.
The Tar Heels offense was in uncharacteristically dire straits throughout the opening stages of the first half, and a summation of its shot chart looked like this:
All told, North Carolina shot 41.2 percent from the field and 3-of-10 from three over the game's first 20 minutes—marks that were the product of some questionable shot selection fueled by an absence of off-ball motion and rhythm.
More specifically, the Tar Heels shot 8-of-27 on jumpers in the first half. By comparison, Oregon drilled eight of 18 jumpers during that stretch, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton was among those who took note of UNC's shooting woes:
But for all of those issues, the Tar Heels carried a three-point lead into the break thanks, in part, to 12 Oregon turnovers, as the Daily Press' David Teel noted:
UNC capitalized on those woes and closed the opening frame with a 17-6 run after trailing by as many as eight, and Jackson found a groove from beyond the arc with a chance to expand the Tar Heels' lead:
Then there was Meeks, who bludgeoned Oregon's front line on a night when Isaiah Hicks (two points, 1-of-12 shooting) did the opposite.
And while North Carolina watched two if its alphas in Jackson and Meeks take control, the Ducks couldn't say the same as Dillon Brooks (10 points, five turnovers) and Tyler Dorsey (21 points, 3-of-11 shooting) struggled to find their strokes from distance.
As a result, the Tar Heels will play for a national title Monday night against the Bulldogs, who thwarted a furious comeback attempt by the South Carolina Gamecocks to book a spot in the championship clash.
Gonzaga and UNC didn't meet during the regular season, but everything to this point suggests a tight showdown should be in order.
While the Bulldogs rank 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency and first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, the Tar Heels rank seventh and 16th in those categories, respectively.
Also consider that Meeks (6'10") and Hicks (6'9") have the size necessary to match up with 7'0" Zach Collins and 7'1" Przemek Karnowski, and the national title game should feature some memorable low-post battles that could decide where the sport's most coveted hardware will reside.
"I feel very lucky, but that's OK," North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said, per USA Today's Nicole Auerbach. "We're still one of the two teams playing Monday night."
"We caught them on a night they didn't shoot the ball very well, too," Williams added, per USA Today's Nancy Armour.
In the Oregon locker room, Bell—who failed to box out with the game on the line—took responsibility for the defeat.
"I know I lost this game for us," he said through tears, according to Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel.
"We had plenty of chances," Ducks head coach Dana Altman said, per NCAA March Madness on Twitter. "We had some really bad turnovers, made some really bad decisions and some really quick threes that I thought we were just pressing a little bit.
"But I can't fault our competitiveness. I thought the guys battled and tried to put ourselves in a position to win. We just didn’t make enough good plays."