As you might have heard, the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the North Carolina Tar Heels are going to play a basketball game this coming Saturday. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are a very good basketball team. They have arguably the best frontline in America, a terrific senior point guard, and a coach who is a rubber stamp for the Naismith Hall of Fame. They are the latest in a long line of terrific Mark Few teams and will pose Carolina’s biggest challenge of the season thus far (with due respect to Michigan).
The Heels and Zags have met three times in this decade, and this fourth meeting will be the first that does not occur on a neutral floor. Here is how Mark Few’s Bulldogs and Roy Williams Tar Heels have fared against one another in the past:
November 22nd, 2006- Gonzaga Wins 82-74 in the NIT Tip-Off
The 2006-07 season began with very different expectations for the Tar Heels and the Zags. Gonzaga was coming off arguably its best season in program history behind Co-National Player of the Year Adam Morrison. The Zags’ dream run ended in the Sweet 16 against UCLA and Morrison left for the NBA. Few (people, that is, not Mark) expected Gonzaga to replicate that same success without their star. UNC, on the other hand, had finished the surprising 2006 season red-hot and had just added a quartet of talented freshman. They were one of the favorites to win it all.
The result? For 30 minutes, Gonzaga ran the Tar Heels off the floor. Veteran guard Derek Raivio scorched the Heels for 21 points, while Jeremy Pargo and Josh Heytvelt combined for 35. The Tar Heels meanwhile had a terrible night shooting the ball (37% from the field, 31% from 3) and Tyler Hansbrough was blanketed by the Gonzaga defense, finishing with just 9 points on 2-5 shooting.
The Zags ran out to a 65-50 lead with about 11 minutes remaining, before Carolina launched a furious comeback bid, drawing within 2 points with 4:16 left. But the veteran Zags didn’t panic and executed down the stretch. UNC couldn’t get the stop they needed to draw level and Gonzaga finished with an 8-point win.
One bright spot in the game was the play of the newly-arrived Brandan Wright, who finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds in his first big time performance in Carolina blue.
2009 - UNC Crushes Gonzaga 98-77 in the Sweet Sixteen
The historically dominant tournament run of the 2009 Tar Heels had several terrific performances, but this one might have been the masterpiece. The Tar Heels put together one of the best offensive floor games of the Roy Williams era, overwhelming the Zags (a four-seed that won 28 games that year) and reminding everyone who the national title favorite was.
As it happens, some folks needed that reminding, maybe even the Heels themselves. The weekend before, Carolina had struggled in the Round of 32 against LSU. The Tigers had held a five-point lead with 12 minutes remaining, were dominating on the glass, and Ty Lawson’s injured toe looked like it was slowing him. The Lawson turned into “Dennis the Menace,” as Roy put it, scoring 21 second half points and keying a surge that put the game safely away.
One week later, Lawson picked up where he left off, scoring 17 first half points. He finished with 19 and 9 assists. Hansbrough had 24 points on 8-10 shooting, while Danny Green had a terrific all-around game, scoring 13, dishing out 7 assists, and recording 4 steals and 2 blocks. The Heels went 36-68 from the field and 11-19 from three. Gonzaga never had a chance. As Heytvelt put it: “You can’t do anything with a team like that. They play like that they’re gonna win the National Championship.” Yup, that checks out.
2017 - UNC Wins the National Championship 71-65
You might remember this one, and I’ll bet you loved every blessed, hideous second of it. The 2017 National Championship game was that clunky, smoggy, piece of junk car you drove for more years than you’d care to admit. It was a mess, it was maddening, but it got you where you needed to go and now you won’t hear a word against it.
Now, having said that; WOOF! UNC and Gonzaga entered the title game both with legitimate claims to be the best team in America: Gonzaga had produced the greatest season in school history, having broken their long Final Four drought at last, and had won 37 games. Carolina, meanwhile, had won the loaded ACC by two full games and had returned to the title game one year removed from the heartbreaker to Nova. Both teams richly deserved to be there.
What unfolded was an absolute dogfight between two teams that had scouted each other to perfection and went after it hammer and tongs. Carolina had been the nation’s best rebounding team by far but the Zags managed to best them on the boards. Gonzaga’s massive frontline was neutralized by Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley. All-American Justin Jackson struggled mightily from the field, but came up big at the end. Veteran point guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Joel Berry were the stars (Goss had 15 points, 9 boards, and 6 assists, while Berry had 22 points and 6 dimes) but shot poorly from the field.
You know how it ended: Theo-to-Justin and-one, Hick’s “little smooch”, Meek’s block, and Justin’s dunk. Carolina just had a little more left in the tank at the very end of a grueling game and took home the prize. We all remember. And trust me, so does Gonzaga.