Nothing mild about Kennedy Meeks in UNC's NCAA finale
An apology was in order after North Carolina lost to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament, UNC freshman Kennedy Meeks said at the time.
He played eight minutes and made a free throw. That was it.
On Sunday in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament with a shot at the Sweet 16 on the line, Meeks punched the clock, put on his hard hat and went to work at the AT&T Center.
No. 3 Iowa State wound up beating No. 6 UNC in a close one, 85-83.
But Meeks logged 31 productive minutes. It was the most he’d played all season — the most minutes of his entire career, for that matter, punctuated by 15 points and 13 rebounds, his second double-double in a UNC uniform.
Meeks (6-9, 290) has more work to do in terms of getting in shape, but he got enough gas from somewhere to keep getting up and down the court.
The Tar Heels needed everything Meeks could give them, too.
Sophomore forward Brice Johnson entered the game averaging 10.1 points per contest, and his 6.3 rebounds per game were second on the team to James Michael McAdoo’s 6.8.
But Johnson left the game with a sprained right ankle with 14:41 left in first half. He never returned to the floor. Two points, two rebounds and two minutes of playing time was all UNC would get from him.
Meeks said he knew he couldn’t afford to be mild.
“Of course,” Meeks said. “Brice is one of our leaders. I just feel bad that he wasn’t out there to help us out.”
All five UNC starters scored in double figures.
But Iowa State had five in double figures, too and were better in the clutch.
In fact, the Cyclones had Mr. Clutch — Naz Long — sidelined Iowa State forward Georges Niang said.
Niang is one of Iowa State’s best players but didn’t play against UNC after getting hurt when the Cyclones beat N.C. Central on Friday.
“Without him, we wouldn’t be here,” DeAndre Kane said “This game was definitely dedicated to Georges.”
Kane is clutch, too.
Niang and Kane were face to face before the game started.
“When Kane came up to me, I said, ‘Good luck out there, man. Hold it down.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, brother. I got you.’”
Kane (24 points) played 39 of the game’s 40 minutes. Fatigue set in, and he was hobbling up and down the court.
“I was cramping a little bit,” Kane said.
Kane, a 24-year-old senior, was crafty, grabbing at the waist of sophomore Marcus Paige. The refs didn’t see it, and all Paige could do was slap at Kane’s hands in frustration.
UNC had a six-point lead with 7:56 left in the game.
“Play loose,” Kane told the Cyclones. “Play free.”
Iowa State got ferocious 3-pointers from Long.
With 2:09 left in game, Kane snatched a defensive rebound and pushed the break, feeding Melvin Ejim for a layup that tied it 76-76.
McAdoo did his part toward the end, making two free throws for another tie with 15 seconds left to play.
But Kane showed up again, getting a tough layup to fall that ultimately decided a touchy outcome.
“The referee said that the clock operator started the clock late and they didn’t recognize my calling the timeout,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Once the refs made the ruling, Williams dropped his head, turned to Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg and shook the man’s hand.