Jordan Bell sat by his locker, tears streaming down his face, and shouldered the blame for Oregon’s loss to North Carolina in Saturday’s national semifinal.
“If I just would have boxed out,” Bell said.
Oregon’s wild NCAA Tournament ride ended in a 77-76 loss to North Carolina in a game that shouldn’t have gotten that close.
The crazier thing is, the Ducks, who trailed by 10 points with about 8 minutes remaining, got exactly what they needed to complete the task. Not one, but four missed free throws by the Tar Heels in the final 5.8 seconds.
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But after the second clank of both pairs, North Carolina did what it does best and cleaned up the offensive glass.
Despite those misses, North Carolina never allowed Oregon to gain possession and advanced to Monday’s national championship game against Gonzaga.
Bell, who finished with 16 rebounds, had inside position on the free throws. But after Kennedy Meeks missed his second shot with 5.8 seconds remaining, Theo Pinson knocked the ball to teammate Joel Berry II.
Berry was fouled and he missed both shots with 4 seconds remaining. But Meeks controlled the second miss, and the Ducks never got the ball with a chance for a dramatic victory.
“We are kicking ourselves because we have to make those free throws,” North Carolina’s Justin Jackson said. “But we’re moving on.”
Oregon isn’t because it couldn’t come up with the big rebound, but coach Dana Altman didn’t point a finger.
“We’re not in that position without Jordan Bell,” Altman said. “He felt really bad about not getting those blockouts but we’re not here tonight without him.”
Somehow, Oregon got close after a miserable shooting game.
The Tar Heels’ lead was 77-71 when Tyler Dorsey bounced in a three-pointer with 44 seconds remaining, ending a run of eight straight misses for the Ducks from behind the arc. Oregon finished seven for 26 on threes for the game.
The Ducks got the ball back after a North Carolina miss, but instead of attempting a game-tying three, Oregon went inside for a Keith Smith layup with 6 seconds remaining.
The game would seemingly be decided at the free-throw line. Instead, it swung because Oregon failed to box out North Carolina rebounders.
Now, the Tar Heels look to finish the deal on the biggest stage.
A year ago, North Carolina lost a chance to win the national title in overtime when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
On Saturday, North Carolina built its edge with its board strength and Jackson.
The Tar Heels increased a three-point halftime lead early in the second half when Meeks stuck back a couple of misses. The Tar Heels entered the game leading the nation in rebounding margin, and Meeks dominated the offensive glass all night.
Meeks finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds, including eight on the offensive end. According to ESPN Stats, he joined Larry Bird, Danny Manning, Ed O’Bannon and Carmelo Anthony as players to go for at least 25 and 14 in a Final Four contest.
“If it weren’t for Kennedy Meeks, we wouldn’t have been in the basketball game,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.
When Meeks wasn’t working on the boards, Jackson was dropping in three-pointers.
Jackson, the ACC player of the year, hit two three-pointers from the left corner in less than a minute and helped turn a three-point lead into a seven-point advantage. He finished with 22 points.
Back to Meeks. His layup with 8:32 remaining gave North Carolina its first double digit lead at 66-56.
At one point, Meeks and Jackson scored 21 straight points for the Tar Heels.
But Oregon, despite its shooting woes, wouldn’t go away. The Ducks stayed within striking distance at the free-throw line, where they made 25 of 28.
The shooting heroes in the victory over Kansas in the Midwest Regional final, Dorsey and Dillon Brooks, combined to go five of 22 from the floor and committed nine of the team’s 17 turnovers against North Carolina.
Brooks fouled out with about a minute remaining, leaving the Ducks without one of their top threats.
North Carolina felt good about its position at halftime, leading 39-36. The Tar Heels outscored the Ducks 17-6 to end the half, while getting outrebounded and shooting under 50 percent.
They never trailed in the second half but also never got a lead that seemed comfortable.
In the end, the Tar Heels had to sweat it out.
“We’re just happy to move on to the next game,” Jackson said.