Basketball is a game that ebbs and flows. One team scores a few points. The other team scores a few points. Sometimes those scoring sprees last longer than reasonably expected. Other times, they are short, concise, and over in the blink of an eye-but no less important.
Monday night’s championship game was filled with many of the latter. Neither team truly ever gained control for a variety of reasons. However, the second half was bookended by two quick 8-0 spurts that proved vital to the Tar Heels earning their sixth NCAA National Championship (and seventh overall).
Both scoring runs lasted a combined total of four minutes. That’s 240 seconds. The first lasted for 2:20 and saw the Heels take a five-point lead before Gonzaga called a timeout to regroup. The second, and most memorable, took place in the final 1:40 of the game. Both runs relied on an offensive AND defensive aggressiveness by UNC, and some interesting decisions by Gonzaga. Let’s take a look.
19:51: Isaiah Hicks gets credited with a steal as the ball bounces right to him. It’s an easy assist to Joel Berry II. Gonzaga leads 35-34.
19:37: Kennedy Meeks appears to get his hand on an entry pass or Przemek Karnowski bobbles the ball. Either way Meeks is credited with the steal as Jackson gathers the loose ball.
19:25: Hicks sets a ball screen as he hands the ball off to Jackson at the top of the key. This leaves a slight opening, as Jackson’s defender Nigel Williams-Goss can’t fight through the pick. Johnathan Williams stands straight up in the middle of the paint, giving Jackson an open lane. Jackson takes two dribbles and gets fouled on one of his floaters. He makes both free throws. UNC leads 36-35.
19:07: After a foul is called on Jackson, he maintains an aggressive defensive attitude. He forces Williams-Goss to the baseline and blocks a fadeaway jumper. Williams-Goss gets his own rebound and takes a rushed three as Theo Pinson flies in to contest. Meeks gets the rebound.
18:52: Meeks gets position in the paint and is fouled as he goes after a missed three by Jackson. The foul is on Johnathan Williams, his third.
18:43: Hicks misses a jump shot but Meeks is there again with the offensive board. This time Zach Collins gets called for his third foul. Perhaps the refs were overzealous, but it’s clear at this point that Meeks’ (and UNC’s) size is starting to be a factor.
18:23: A high ball screen is set by Meeks for Berry. Similar to the ball screen for Jackson a minute earlier, this takes place at the three point line. Instead of staying in the lane like Williams did a minute prior, Karnowski decides this would be a good time to hedge hard. He forces Berry backwards to the mid-court logo. Meeks sees an open lane and immediately dives towards to the rim. Jordan Mathews rotates, but is too small and already behind Meeks. Berry finds Meeks for the bucket. UNC leads 38-35.
18:23-17:48: Kennedy Meeks continues to be a defensive machine and forces a Karnowski miss. The rebound goes out of bounds, and Gonzaga gets the ball back. Williams-Goss misses an easy jumper in the lane and Meeks gathers the rebound.
17:40: Meeks found Berry on the outlet. Berry maneuvers around the defense, and pulls up for a 17 foot jump shot. After UNC scored six points due to attacking the paint, Gonzaga relaxed and didn’t stop the ball. Berry made them pay. UNC leads 40-35.
17:15: Gonzaga again tried to get inside the lane and test UNC’s big men. This time Isaiah Hicks stood his ground and contested a driving runner by Jordan Mathews. The ball goes out of bounds with possession to UNC.
At this point Gonzaga called a timeout to settle down. That 8-0 run capped a 17-5 scoring run by UNC, going back to the first half. The rest of the second half was probably as frustrating to play as it was to watch. The refs decided that they weren’t getting enough attention so they made sure America knew there were three extra bodies on the court. Both teams struggled to gain any momentum as they fought each other and the non-stop whistles.
UNC never trailed by more than two points the rest of the way. Finally, with 1:40 to play and trailing 65-63, the Heels went on another of those late game runs that became a staple of this tournament.
1:40: Theo gets a ball screen by Meeks at the top of the key. Karnowski, who is listed at 7-1,, is sagging near the free throw line but not really protecting the rim. This leaves enough space for both Theo to penetrate and for Jackson to lose his man, Williams-Goss, under the rim.
As Theo drives, Karnowski maintains contact with Meeks, completely ignoring the action at the rim. Again, he is 7-1. He likely doesn’t want Meeks to get any momentum on another pick and roll. He also has to stop the ball, because Gonzaga has clearly decided that getting “over the top” of the screen is their preferred defense. Instead of “going under” the screen, and trying to lull Pinson into another bad shot, Gonzaga gives Theo plenty of space to create. At this point in the game, this apparently is the best course of action against a team that couldn’t hit the ocean if they were literally sinking on the Titanic.
Whatever the reason for this defensive decision-making process, after making it all the way to the free throw line Theo finds Jackson wide open. This was a size mismatch that Jackson took advantage of throughout the game, in various ways. He hits the lay-up and ensuing free throw. UNC leads 66-65.
1:40-1:19: After a timeout, Gonzaga fakes a ball screen for Williams-Goss that Karnowski turns into a slip screen. Karnowski was wide open as he ran down the right side of the lane. Meeks decides to stay in help defense in the middle of the lane for Pinson, taking away any hope of Williams-Goss penetrating to the rim. Instead, Pinson recovers in time to contest and alter Williams-Goss’ 15 footer. Thanks to Pinson’s recovery and shot alteration, Meeks is able to get his body on Karnowski allowing Pinson to complete the possession with a defensive rebound.
0:53: With nine seconds on the shot clock and a one point lead, Berry shoots a three. I think it’s fair to say this was not a smart play. Terrible awareness or ignorance in regard to time and score.
Meeks bobbled the rebound and a mini-scrum ensued. A jump ball was awarded to UNC. This is the play that most viewers will cry foul over.
Was Meeks’ hands out of bounds while he was touching the ball? Yes.
Should have Gonzaga been awarded possession? Yes.
Was UNC fortunate? No more fortunate than Gonzaga on the phantom blocked three-pointer at the other end a few minutes prior. That call resulted in Gonzaga’s ball and a subsequent three points. This game was not the finest display of officiating for either side.
0:26: Isaiah Hicks gets the ball in the high post. North Carolina has a 4-high set up, with Pinson and Berry on the wing at the “free-throw line extended”. Meeks is on the opposite block. Karnowski is alone and unafraid protecting the rim while guarding Meeks. There is little doubt that Hicks is the primary option on this set.
As Hicks turns to square up to the basket and drive right, Jackson cuts down the right side of the lane. When Jackson realizes that Hicks is attacking, he pops out to the wing, effectively drawing his defender away from the play. This opens up more of a driving lane. Karnowski refuses to leave Meeks. Pinson’s and Berry’s defenders don’t leave their assignments.
As you can see, Jackson’s defender never provided any help as Hicks drives right by him. This was a smart read by Jackson and poor awareness by Silas Melson, who had lost all sight of the ball. Karnoswki never rotated over, instead focusing on keeping Meeks off the glass. Hicks for his part just made a great, athletic basketball play. UNC leads 68-65.
0:16: Gonzaga called timeout and drew up their play. Unsurprisingly, Williams-Goss was the Zags’ go to player. Running a variation of the play they ran just one possession prior, Karnowski actually set a crushing screen on Pinson well above the three point line. Williams-Goss drove hard to the right. Kennedy Meeks who was playing off Karnowski, moves to cut off the driving lane. Hicks was playing just far enough into the lane that it deterred Goss from trying to blow by Meeks. However, he was also still well within reach of Johnathan Williams on the block.
Meeks, once again displaying his constantly underrated defensive mobility, beats Williams-Goss to the point of attack. Hicks hasn’t fully committed to either helping Meeks or guarding Williams, but it doesn’t matter. He and Joel Berry are enough of a deterrent. Williams-Goss is forced to change direction using a spin move. Meeks maintained his positioning and changed directions with the point guard.
You see below, as Williams-Goss has completed his spin move, Hicks has fully committed to defending on the block. Kennedy stays with the ball, which was probably not what Gonzaga expected to happen. Most surprising to me was how slow Karnowski was to roll back to the hoop (though I wonder if that was not part of the play). This meant that Williams-Goss had zero help if he got in trouble. (Hint: He got in trouble). That worked out great for UNC, as Berry controlled the loose ball and found Jackson for the transition dunk. UNC’s lead grew to 70-65.
0:08: Meeks steals the cross court pass. Berry is fouled and hits one of two free throws. UNC leads 71-65
0:00: UNC wins their sixth NCAA National Championship.
So there you have it. Two 8-0 scoring runs in the second half. The first outburst set the tone and gave UNC life. By attacking the basket and increasing their defensive intensity, the Tar Heels made Gonzaga pay for their mistakes. Key rebounding positioning put the Zags in foul trouble, and they never fully recovered- though they had their chances.
The second run, which was fueled by incredibly disciplined defense (again), buried Gonzaga.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was how Gonzaga essentially went away from their balanced attack late in the game. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they wanted the ball in their best player’s hands, but both of their final full possessions seemed to overly rely on a single playmaker - and a hobbled one at that. That hadn’t seemed to be their style. To be fair, North Carolina’s defense deserves massive amounts of credit for taking Gonzaga out of their game.
In contrast, both offensively and defensively, UNC continued to remain unselfish and everyone on the court stayed disciplined. Jackson’s old fashioned three point play was all thanks to Theo’s court vision and willingness to pass. Hicks’ driving layup just joined the pantheon of immortal UNC baskets. Meeks’ spry defensive abilities should finally be etched in fan’s minds forever.
They stayed resilient, and as so many times this season, simply found a way to win in the most unexpected of ways.
I’m really going to miss this team.