It wasn’t pretty. At times it was even hard to look at. But the 2017 North Carolina Tar Heels exorcised the demons of Houston 2016 to bring the seventh (or sixth, depending on how you value the Helms trophy) to Chapel Hill.
A word about our ranking criteria seems in order here: This is not a ranking of the “Most Important” games in UNC history, otherwise the six title games would obviously make up the top 6. The six title games are all here, but importance is one of four factors being taken into account. Another is Quality of Game and this one was, well...
Having said that, the ending to this game was sweeter than a Belgian waffle, so let’s get to it:
Before the offseason even started, the 2016-17 Tar Heels had but one purpose: Redemption. They even chose that as the name of their team text thread. And all season long, they played like it. Carolina won the ACC Regular Season title by two full games, despite having the likes of yet another Preseason #1 Duke team dominating the headlines. Justin Jackson became a bonafide star, and was named 1st-team All-American. Joel Berry took over sole point guard responsibilities after sharing them with Marcus Paige the previous year and established a reputation as one of the best leaders in college basketball.
The Tar Heels faced a tough road in the South Regional, having to claw their way back late against Arkansas in the Round of 32 and played a classic Elite Eight game against Kentucky (stay tuned for that one) when a certain #32 drilled a game-winner for the ages. Joel Berry was hobbled by TWO ankle injuries and it showed against Oregon, when he had a miserable night from the field. But Justin Jackson’s shooting and a fantastic performance from Kennedy Meeks (including the game-saving offensive board) brought UNC back to the title game, where they would face Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs were a terrific team, coming in 37-1, though they faced the usual questions about their soft schedule. But in Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, and Nick Collins they had talented stars and a strong supporting cast to back them up. They ripped through the West Regional without much of a challenge to reach their first Final Four, where they outlasted a relentless South Carolina team in the National Semifinal. With an overpowering frontline and a fearless floor general, they were almost doppelgängers to Carolina.
Gonzaga controlled the opening minutes, with guard Josh Perkins leading the way: He scored 13 of the Bulldogs first 28 points, going 3-3 from beyond the arc. Some timely shooting from Berry kept the Tar Heels close. Jonathan Williams also did damage against the UNC defense, posting up Hicks several times. It was lucky for the Zags that he did: Meeks and Karnowski went at it hammer and tongs and neither could gain much of an advantage. Karnowski in particular seemed unused to a player of Meeks’ size. On top of that, Nick Collins (who had dominated against South Carolina) was in foul trouble. The first half ended 35-32 Gonzaga.
Outside of Perkins, both teams were struggling shooting the ball. Justin Jackson was 0-6 from three before the intermission, and the Carolina bigs weren’t having much luck inside against the length of Gonzaga. On top of that, Carolina (the best rebounding team in the nation) was being beaten on the boards. On the flip side, Karnowski had given Mark Few’s team nothing and Williams-Goss was struggling with his shot.
Carolina threw the first punch in the second half, going on an 8-0 run right out of the locker room. Their defense, throughout the entire second interval really, was fantastic, forcing the Bulldogs into contested one-on-one plays. But the Zags punched back, going on an 8-0 run of their own, hitting finishing two and-one plays (one free throw was missed) and hitting a contested three.
Back and forth the two teams went, neither able to hit the shots needed to gain any breathing room from the other. This was Big Boy basketball, two teams with a lot of size pounding away at each other. Isaiah Hicks stood out in the 2nd half for his physical dives to the basket and his finishes through contact. And it was that kind of night: Any points in the paint were going to leave a mark on you.
In the closing minutes, Nigel Williams-Goss finally sprang to life. Between the 4:30 and 1:50 mark, he hit three big time shots, one a tough three, the other two post-ups on the wing against Jackson and Theo Pinson. The last of them gave Gonzaga a 65-63 lead. But on the ensuing possession Pinson hit Jackson with a bullet pass to the post, which Jackson finished plus the foul on Williams-Goss. Normally the stoic, Jackson roared “And One!” at his adversary. His free throw gave UNC the lead 66-65.
Neither team could score on their next shots, but a tie-up resulted in UNC ball with 50 seconds to go. With the shot clock winding down, Hicks made a hanging floater off the glass, just willing the ball in over Jonathan Williams. 68-65. Gonzaga set a screen to switch Meeks onto Williams-Goss, playing for the two, not the three. But Meeks stuffed Goss triggered the fast break which...well you know what happened:
Lost at times in Berry’s heroics (playing through the ankle injury) is just how clutch Kennedy Meeks was in the 2017 Final Four. He played a monster game against Oregon and saved the game on the glass when UNC missed its last four field goal attempts. He was never a top defender but he made the two biggest plays of his life in the final seconds on the defensive end: First the block on Goss, then the game sealing steal. Jackson was the All-American, Berry was the MOP, but Kennedy Meeks, along with Isaiah Hicks’ toughness, had the perfect ending.
A look at the box score will tell you that UNC went 4-27 from three (the only makes coming from Berry) and 15-26 from the foul line. Berry finished with 22, Jackson and Hicks adding 16 and 13 respectively, but Jackson and Pinson combined to go 8-28 from the field, 0-13 from beyond the arc. Gonzaga out-rebounded the Heels 49-46. But Carolina still won, thanks to their defense and ball security (they only turned it over four times). They care not about the shooting stats or the rebounding line. One year removed from heartbreak, they were coming home with the trophy.