North Carolina was down five to Arkansas with 3:30 left. They won. They were down five to Kentucky with less than four minutes left. They won. They were down eight to Oregon. They won.
They were down by as many as seven against Gonzaga, while shooting 35.6% and under 15% from three. They still won.
So many moments in this tournament could have spelled the end of North Carolina. None of them ever did. UNC fought back every time. Pretty much everyone that played chipped in with at least one big moment this tournament. After the way last season ended, it was clear they weren’t going to get this far and lose again. And they didn’t.
After beating Gonzaga 70-65, the North Carolina Tar Heels are men’s basketball National Champions for the sixth time.
UNC scored first and led early before the Bulldogs settled in and really controlled most of the first half. Josh Perkins knocked down three first half threes, and Carolina looked on the ropes at times. Perkins’ third three put Gonzaga up seven with 4:20 left in the half.
Like they did against Oregon, Carolina fought back and went on a run to finish out the half. They got it down to one before Gonzaga eventually took a three point lead into halftime.
In the second half, North Carolina set the tone from the very start. An Isaiah Hicks steal nine seconds in led to an easy Joel Berry layup. UNC scored the first eight points of the second and took a five point lead. Gonzaga immediately answered with a run of their own and took the lead back. From there on, it was back and forth for the remainder of the game.
With 1:55 left, Nigel Williams-Goss hit a jumper to put Gonzaga up two. Down the other end, Justin Jackson was fouled on a layup attempt, got it to go, and hit the free throw to put Carolina back up.
The next time down the floor, the Tar Heels got a stop. Back down the other end, the ball got tied up after Kennedy Meeks couldn’t hold onto an offensive rebound. After the inbounds and some clock draining, the ball ended up in the hands of Hicks who hit a shot in the lane to put Carolina up three with 27 seconds left.
The next possession had the play that will be forever remembered. Meeks blocked Williams-Goss’ jumper. Berry picked up the loose ball and found Jackson for a transition dunk, putting Carolina up five. It wasn’t over yet, but it sure started to feel real.
Meeks came up with a steal as the Zags tried to rush back down the court, Berry hit a free throw, Gonzaga missed a three, Theo Pinson got the rebound, and North Carolina won.
This game will by no means be remembered as pretty. Both teams shot under 40%. There were so many fouls called in this game. The referees were not great. Gonzaga fans are probably going to be quite upset about the officiating.
However, this game was exactly what this North Carolina team has been throughout this NCAA Tournament. When it mattered most, they made just enough plays to win the game. The offense was really not great. Gonzaga was one of the best defensive teams in the country, and they showed it. UNC won because they played incredible defense as well. The Bulldogs shot just 33.9%, and turned the ball over 14 times.
Berry led all scorers with 22 points. He was named tournament Most Outstanding Player. Hicks went for 13, including that huge late bucket to put UNC up three. Jackson went 0-9 from three but still finished with 16 points. Meeks didn’t go off as much as he did against Oregon, but he still grabbed 10 rebounds.
All tournament long, this has been a team effort. Berry struggled for much of the tournament but came up big in the title game. Jackson struggled in the title game, but came up big all tournament. Meeks got at least 10 rebounds in all but one tournament game. Hicks was really bad in the semifinal, then he made probably the biggest shot of the championship game. Nate Britt sparked the first half run against Oregon. Theo Pinson pushed the tempo to set up that shot. Luke Maye made that shot. Everyone who plays substantial minutes for this team contributed something big along the way.
Roy Williams now has his third national championship. This team and this season dispels almost every negative thing that has been said about Roy:
“He can’t coach, he only recruits.” This team has a lot of decently ranked recruits, but it’s far from loaded with future NBA talent.
“His teams don’t play defense.” They sure did this March.
“He doesn’t call enough timeouts.” Go watch the Kentucky game. Whatever you want to question Roy about, it’s been answered this year.
As tough as the end of last season’s game was, this made up for it. North Carolina are national champions and another banner is going up in the Smith Center.