It’s finally over.
That statement refers to a lot of things, because this past UNC season had a sense of finality to it that is unmatched by anything else I’ve known. It refers to the mini-drought that UNC fans had been experiencing, with the finally-I-can-talk-about-it 2016 championship game loss being the Heels’ only Final Four appearance since 2009 (yes, I realize how privileged we are as UNC fans to think of seven years without a Final Four as a drought. Our tradition is of excellence. Deal with it).
It refers to the perceived slippage of the program in the 2010s, highlighted by a losing record against Duke, the gradual loss of elite recruits, and, of course, the academic scandal issues dogging the program’s every step. It refers to the redemption tour that began as soon as Joel Berry announced his intention to return to Chapel Hill with his sights set on Phoenix from Day 1. And finally, it refers to the 2017 Tar Heels’ season itself, one that felt more tumultuous than history will remember it as, and the anxiety we all felt as we inched ever closer to the goal we had all set without realizing it.
Normally, nobody, even the most elitist of blue blood fans, would consider a Final Four appearance a failed year. This year, however, after the heartbreak of 2016, we silently demanded a title. It was the only thing that could fix us who had been broken. And now it has. It’s all over. And in the final chapter of that journey, here’s what we learned:
1. Anybody questioning UNC’s toughness, kindly egress in a sinistral direction.
We’ve all heard the snide jabs at the UNC program by some, including a particular Indiana alumnus, about how UNC teams aren’t “tough,” which entails essentially anything that critics want it to. It has been implied that UNC teams can’t respond to being metaphorically punched in the mouth, that they feel entitled towards winning and don’t want to work for wins against teams without their pedigree, and can’t handle adversity.
The 2017 National Champions would like to tell those doubters they are... ahem... incorrect. Questions of entitlement were put to rest when UNC won its 1-16 matchup by the biggest margin of such games in the tournament. Then, adversity struck, and it struck from all
ankles angles. Joel Berry hurt his ankle, adding to the injury woes UNC had already been coping with after the loss of Kenny Williams. Then the Heels ran into Arkansas, and after a hot start, the Heels were stopped in their tracks, and the Razorbacks led by five with 3:31 to go and showing no signs of slowing down.
A less tough team might have folded under the pressure of being a 1-seed on the ropes in the round of 32 (or perhaps a 2-seed on the ropes in the round of 32, but I digress). Instead, the Heels locked in, as they would several more times over the course of the tournament. They ended the game on a 12-0 run and advanced.
In the Elite Eight, UNC faced a rematch with a Kentucky team that had already beaten them once. After Malik Monk hit two miracle three-pointers in the last minute, the latter of which tied the game, two of UNC’s less-heralded offensive players were the ones to make the game-winning play. That’s institutional toughness. Against Oregon in the Final Four, the Heels sealed victory despite missing four straight free throws by having worn their opponents down on the boards.
In the title game, UNC found itself down at the half, came out swinging to turn a three-point deficit into a five-point lead, then, when the chips were down and Gonzaga held a two-point lead with 90 seconds remaining, the Heels finished their season with an 8-0 run, fueled by defense more than offense, and ensured that they would be cutting down the nets. They stumbled again and again, and could have been taken advantage of numerous times. But they tightened up and controlled their own destiny, and that’s why they’re champs. If you still want to question their toughness, Roy Williams’ 3rd ring would like a word.
2. There is no “I” in team.
People may retort that we’ve known this since grade school, but it’s easy to forget in the star-studded culture of revenue sports. It’s always individual names that dominate the conversation in March: Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, Duke’s Luke Kennard, South Carolina’s Sindarious Thornwell, Oregon’s Tyler Dorsey. But at the end of the day, the last two teams in the competition were two that had made their names on well-roundedness and the ability to attack you from multiple positions.
Justin Jackson and Nigel Williams-Goss got plenty of individual hype, of course, and deservedly so, but they were never portrayed as their respective teams’ only hope. And throughout the tournament, different players stood out for the Heels. Kennedy Meeks stood out against Arkansas and Oregon, Jackson torched Texas Southern and joined Berry in ripping apart Butler, Luke Maye was the team’s savior against Kentucky, and Berry and Isaiah Hicks ensured that the Heels beat Gonzaga.
Only in the Oregon game, though, could any one player’s performance be truly said to eclipse the team. Every other victory was the result of team-oriented, well-coached, heady basketball. The Tar Heels are national champions because they played their game, not sports culture’s and not sports media’s. The Zags deserve a shoutout here as well, as they reached the finals with a similar style and could easily be saying the same about their team if circumstances had been different.
3. Order has been restored.
During the lead-up to the title game, viewers in Chapel Hill were experiencing on-and-off showers. There was some worry about how this might affect festivities if the Heels were to have won (I don’t have to knock on wood anymore!). But as the Heels took the lead for the last time, the sky began to clear up, and the festivities on Franklin Street were as wonderfully hectic as ever; see for yourself:
Early the next morning, the weather was a little chilly, as if the world was still processing the events of the previous night. But slowly, surely, the clouds dissipated and gave us an absolutely gorgeous day with an absolutely gorgeous, Carolina blue sky.
All this is to say that things finally feel right with Carolina basketball after years of feeling not quite where we as fans wanted to be. Tar Heel Nation, we’re champs for the next year. Relish it. #GDTBATH.