By SIMON BRADY
The North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team came into the 2017 campaign with one simple mantra: Redemption. At this time about a year ago, North Carolina suffered one of the more heartbreaking losses imaginable to the Villanova Wildcats 77-74 in the 2016 National Championship.
A hungry Tar Heels squad was forced to carry that awful taste in their mouth all offseason long, but with 10 returning players to the roster, there was promise of getting back and finishing the job this time around. North Carolina did just that on Monday night April 3rd, defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs 71-65 from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
The Tar Heels triumphed despite shooting just 35.6 percent from the field, including an abysmal 4-27 from beyond the arc. Given the poor shooting performance, North Carolina would rely on its length and size on defense to shut down the potent Gonzaga offense, holding them to just 30 points on 27.6 percent in the second half.
Unfortunately in the second half, foul trouble on both sides played a major role in the game. Each team totaled 22 team fouls, making for a very choppy second half. This made it very difficult for either team to get into a rhythm, and key players were forced to play less minutes than they normally would. Gonzaga freshman star forward Zach Collins fouled out in just 14 minutes of play.
With foul trouble and poor shooting relatively even for both teams, the game would come down to the wire, as many anticipated. Given that North Carolina was almost in this exact spot last year while Gonzaga was playing in its first national title in program history, the Tar Heels had a decisive experience advantage, and used it to outscore Gonzaga 8-0 in the final 1:40 of play.
With the Tar Heels up on Gonzaga 68-65 with 22 seconds left, all it would take is one more stop on defense to secure the redemption they’ve been seeking all season long.
North Carolina got just that as senior forward Kennedy Meeks blocked junior Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss’ shot in the paint. Junior guard Joel Berry II gathered the loose ball and found his teammate, junior forward Justin Jackson, who dunked it home to put the Heels up five with just 12 ticks left.
A steal by Meeks on the ensuing inbound pass from Gonzaga would be the icing on the cake, as North Carolina secured the National Title, as tears of despair and disappointment just a year ago became tears of joy and jubilation this time around.
The aforementioned Berry was named the Most Outstanding Player of the final four following the Tar Heel victory. Berry finished with a game high 22 points on 7-19 shooting. He also dished out six assists while committing just one turnover. Berry now joins UCLA legend Bill Walton as the only players to score at least 20 points in back to back National Championship games.
Berry’s performance is far more impressive considering he was battling injuries in both ankles throughout the whole tournament. He was limited in practice for nearly the entire tournament. After shooting a poor 2-14 from the field in Saturday’s national semifinal victory against Oregon, many believed his ongoing injuries would hamper his play against Gonzaga.
Berry wasn’t the only veteran who came up clutch for the Heels. Senior forward Isaiah Hicks had the critical bucket to put North Carolina up by three with 20 seconds left. Hicks played a complete game after struggling mightily in the national semifinal, shooting 1-12. Monday night Hicks totaled 13 points on 5-9 shooting, he also grabbed nine rebounds and had two blocks.
Despite shooting poorly from three, junior forward and rising star Justin Jackson put in 16 points on 6-19 shooting, including the aforementioned critical go ahead layup with two minutes left and dunk that put the Tar Heels up five with 12 seconds left.
Lastly, senior forward Kennedy Meeks snagged 10 rebounds. He controlled the glass when it mattered most late in the tournament, totaling 41 rebounds over the Tar Heels last three tournament games. Meeks also had the critical block on Williams-Goss on Gonzaga’s last possession as well as the steal with seven seconds left that officially secured the win.
On the flip, junior guard and All-American Nigel Williams-Goss led the way for Gonzaga, scoring 15 points on 5-17 shooting, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out six assists. Gonzaga’s other star however, the 7-foot-1-inch, 300 pound Polish center, senior Przemek Karnowski struggled all night long. He shot 1-8 from the field, missing open looks that he consistently has hit over his extensive career. Kanowski also committed a game high four turnovers, matching the total number of turnovers North Carolina had as a team.
Monday night’s National Championship for North Carolina marks their sixth in program history. In his 100th NCAA tournament game, Roy Williams earned his third championship as the Tar Heels’ head coach. Williams has now surpassed his mentor, the late hall of fame coach Dean Smith, who won two titles at North Carolina.