National championship teams will live forever in our minds as Carolina fans. We will all be able to recall for years into the future exactly where we were and what we were doing when the Tar Heels beat Gonzaga to win their sixth NCAA Tournament championship. Here are the best moments that helped get them there.
6. Late-game rally vs. Arkansas
After letting the Razorbacks go on a run to close out the first half, the Tar Heels went to the locker room in their second tournament game up just 38-33. Carolina didn’t shoot the ball well at all, finishing the game at just 38% from the field. They also committed 10 turnovers in the second half.
The wheels started to fall off a bit for Carolina, and a less talented, less tough team might have let the underdog Razorbacks leave Greenville with an unexpected win. However, down five points with just three minutes to go, Carolina locked in. They scored on six of their last seven possessions to go on a 12-0 run.
In a game in which Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson struggled immensely, missing 20 of their combined 27 shots from the field, it was incredible to get out of there with a win. It was then that you really started to believe this team might be able to navigate through whatever the tournament threw at them.
5. Justin Jackson’s final dunk in the championship game
The final points scored in Justin Jackson’s Tar Heel career came on an emphatic dunk to seal the win and the championship for Carolina. The Tar Heels were up three points with 19 seconds remaining when Nigel Williams-Goss tried to drive to the lane. Kennedy Meeks came up with a huge rejection that sent the ball into the arms of Joel Berry.
Berry tossed the ball up ahead to Jackson, who was already alone on the other end of the court. Jackson threw it down with a scream representing some combination of joy and relief. The Tar Heels really had to battle Gonzaga, and they never had a comfortable lead. JJ’s dunk gave Carolina a five-point edge with 11 seconds to go, eliminating any real question about whether or not the Zags would be able to pull off some late heroics.
DAGGER! #NationalChampionship pic.twitter.com/n3HJg1zGHV— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 4, 2017
4. Joel Berry’s championship game performance on two bad ankles
After twisting his ankle hard in UNC’s very first game against Texas Southern, Joel Berry played the rest of the tournament well under 100%. He managed to sprain his OTHER ankle a couple games later, giving him exactly zero non injured ankles on which to play.
For much of the season, it seemed accurate to believe that the Tar Heels went as Joel Berry went. When he was healthy and effective, the Tar Heels just played better. When Berry struggled, it felt like the team effectiveness suffered. So with their point guard clearly feeling the effects of hurting ankles, others had to step up in order to get the Tar Heels to the championship game.
As if by some sort of miracle, Berry woke up the day after the Oregon win feeling better than he had before. With the quick turnaround between the Final Four game and the championship, this was incredibly welcome news. In the championship, Berry shot the ball better than he had the previous two games. He led all UNC players in points with 22 on a night when the ball would not go in the basket for Justin Jackson.
The game led to Berry being named Final Four Most Outstanding Player, earning him the right to see his jersey honored in the Smith Center next season. Whether Berry will be there as a player or as a visitor is still up in the air, but the way he was able to step up at such a crucial time while obviously still not being at full health won’t soon be forgotten.
3. Kennedy Meeks’ game-deciding block (and complete tournament performance)
Kennedy Meeks is on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the block that denied Williams-Goss a chance to cut the Bulldogs’ deficit in the closing seconds of the championship game. It was a great play at a crucial moment, but Meeks’ entire tournament performance was one for the ages.
Meeks grabbed double digit rebounds in each of Carolina’s final five games of the season. His performance in the Oregon game (25 points, 14 rebounds, three steals) was absolutely outstanding. It was a career night for Meeks, and he ended up saving the game for the Tar Heels by grabbing the rebound of a Joel Berry missed free throw with just seconds remaining.
There was definitely an argument to be made that Meeks, not Berry, was deserving of MOP honors. However, he does still have a chance to have his jersey honored in the Smith Center. If his teammates and coaches vote him MVP, his jersey would join Jackson’s and Berry’s in the rafters. For the way he helped carry UNC to the championship, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve it.
2. Back-to-back offensive rebounds on free throws
The Carolina-Oregon Final Four game was coming down to the wire, and the Tar Heels just could not hit their free throws. It was maddening to watch at home as even good free throw shooters like Berry were unable to convert from the charity stripe.
Kennedy Meeks missed two big free throws, but Theo Pinson was in the right place at the right time to tap the miss out to Joel Berry so that Carolina retained possession. When it was Berry’s turn at the line, he also missed both free throws. In a game that close that late, those missed free throws could have been the dagger. Meeks was able to wrestle Berry’s miss away from Jordan Bell before tossing it out to Pinson, who was able to run out the clock.
Rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, carried the Tar Heels all season. It was only fitting that it would carry them into the championship game as well. Our cardiovascular systems would all be better off if Meeks and Berry had made those free throws instead, but their teammates were able to clean up their misses the same way they had all year to secure the victory.
Justin Jackson had done an absolutely outstanding job of containing Malik Monk all throughout the Tar Heels’ Elite Eight game against Kentucky. After Monk hung 40+ on the Tar Heels when the two teams met in December, it was crucial for someone to defend him in the game with much higher stakes. Jackson’s defense throughout the tournament was incredible.
It wasn’t until very late in the game that Monk was able to pull off some bonafide heroics. With Jackson all in his face and Kentucky down three with just seconds to go, Monk launched a deep ball at the top of the key that dropped in to tie the game with just seven seconds to go. The defense wasn’t bad by any means on the play, Monk was just that good.
In true Roy Williams fashion, coach does not call a timeout. He depends on his guys to take what he has taught them in practice and execute. He doesn’t want to give Kentucky a chance to set their defense. Williams just wants the guys to go, and so they do.
Meeks gets the ball out of bounds quickly, not even setting both feet before getting it in to Theo Pinson. Pinson dribbles nearly all the way up the court before he runs into opposition at his own free throw line. It was then that Theo had to make a decision. Justin Jackson was open over on the wing, Joel Berry was open at the top of the key. Either guy would have been an understandable choice to pass the ball off to in hopes of a late-second game-winner.
Luke Maye called for the ball. Pinson dumped it off to him just beside the free throw line, and Maye takes a couple steps back until he’s just inside the arc. He lets go off the ball with two seconds to go and it finds nothing but net when it lands. It gave the Tar Heels a two-point lead with just 0.3 seconds to go, which wasn’t enough for Kentucky to do anything with.
It was one of the most incredible moments of the entire tournament. It’s a shot that will live on in video packages for a long time to come. For Maye, who was first recruited without any promise of a scholarship at Carolina, it was the biggest shot of his college career (so far, of course). Without it, who knows. Glad we don’t have to wonder. Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuke.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! #Elite8 pic.twitter.com/GETD7qN2kG— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 26, 2017