Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Strange game ends with North Carolina getting chance at redemption for loss in last season’s final

Roy Williams and North Carolina are headed back to the national championship game.
Roy Williams and North Carolina are headed back to the national championship game. The Associated Press

It all started with the disorienting contrast of Oregon coach Dana Altman prowling the elevated floor as North Carolina coach Roy Williams sat back in the pit scorning the stool on the court above him.

“I like to sit on the bench,” Williams said. “But it’s terrible, you can’t see down there.”

Then there was the disembodied voice of CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, suddenly blaring over the University of Phoenix Stadium public-address system to point out how out of sync both teams were in their national semifinal on Saturday night.

Through most of a slogging first half, in fact, the scoring pace evoked that of Oregon’s last Final Four appearance: a 46-33 win over Ohio State in 1939.

But the most ordinary and predictable of things had happened after all the quirks and twists in a game that also featured the Tar Heels not making a basket in the final 5 minutes 53 seconds of the game and getting two game-saving offensive rebounds off of four missed free throws in the final seconds.

North Carolina, the school that has been to more Final Fours (20) than any other, advanced to its 11th national title game with a 77-76 victory over Oregon.

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So now the Tar Heels will hope to avoid another commonplace occurrence in their history: a record-tying sixth title game loss, the most recent of which the last-second 77-74 loss to Villanova that has burned for a year.

Just making it back, Williams said, is “amazing” — especially after a stretch run Saturday that featured a key three-pointer by Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey that Williams swore at one point bounced off the rim and under the basket before it “crawled back over the top and went back in.”

“So,” he added, “that was pretty weird.”

The end also left the former Kansas coach with an impulse to “jump off a building” as the Heels missed four free throws in the last 5.8 seconds.

As it was, Williams was almost apologetic and certainly sheepish that it had turned out as it did.

“Feel very lucky,” he said. “But that’s OK. It doesn’t make any difference.”

It would have if Oregon had played with the accuracy and ferocity it did in swamping Kansas 74-60 in the regional title game last week at the Sprint Center.

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But the Ducks who shot better than 50 percent against the Jayhawks (29 of 57) and hit endless killer threes were nowhere to be seen on Saturday.

That was in part because of Carolina’s more staunch defense and in part, well, because it’s the fickle nature of the game.

Oregon made only 22 of 58 field goals overall and just 7 of 26 from three-point range and will forever be haunted by the most basic of breakdowns in the final seconds:

Jordan Bell, who had 16 rebounds, failed to box out (at least not adequately) twice in a row — and that was that as the Tar Heels ran out the clock.

“He felt really bad about not getting those blockouts,” Altman said. “But we’re not here without him.”

Meanwhile, North Carolina isn’t in the title game without Kennedy Meeks, who had 25 points and 14 rebounds — including the final one to somewhat atone for missing two free throws seconds before.

Adding to the sheer oddity of the night, Williams’ news conference included a question suggesting there was a blessing in disguise in the lingering stigma of the massive academic fraud investigation.

After all, the theory went, UNC doesn’t have any one-and-done caliber recruits on this team.

“I don’t think there’s one second of that thing that’s been a blessing, not one second,” he said. “People have (questioned) my credibility, and I haven’t appreciated that. It’s been used against us in recruiting.

“There’s not one second that I’ve thought was a blessing. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, and I don’t have too many enemies. I think.”

And with that, the news conference ended moments later and, ho-hum, Carolina was back where it’s been so many times before … with the chance to make up for the sorrow of a year ago and an achievement in its own right.

“Three-hundred fifty-one teams start playing,” Williams said, “and this is the second year in a row we are one of two left.”

After an entirely unpredictable game ended in the most obvious way possible.

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