Redemption. Exhilaration. Relief.
They all ran through the bloodstreams of North Carolina’s players and their faithful fans Monday night, as the Tar Heels performed one final great escape to beat Gonzaga 71-65 for the national championship.
Led by 22 points from point guard Joel Berry and a sturdy defense that forced 14 turnovers, UNC did just enough to edge Gonzaga and win its sixth NCAA title.
The game was sloppy. Both teams shot poorly. And no one will care about that in Chapel Hill or points beyond, where the Tar Heels will celebrate their third NCAA championship of coach Roy Williams’ tenure.
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A month ago, North Carolina legend Michael Jordan uttered the quote “The ceiling is the roof” while speaking to the crowd at the North Carolina-Duke basketball game. It didn’t make much sense, then or now.
But it turned out that the Tar Heels found their ceiling on the roof of University of Phoenix Stadium, where the confetti and streamers fell on an ecstatic team after UNC won a championship that was in almost constant doubt for the past two weeks.
Longtime Tar Heels fans will realize that this team mimicked what North Carolina did in 1981 and 1982 – losing in the national final the first year, then winning it the very next time around when a freshman named Jordan hit the game-winning jumper.
This North Carolina team did not have anyone like Jordan in its freshman class, and it had all sorts of troubles, too. It seemed like the Tar Heels never made a clutch free throw during the entire NCAA tournament, and their stars took turns having bad games. Even in the national championship, UNC shot a horrendous 4-for-27 from 3-point range.
But what a heart this team had, and what a knack for coming up with the right play at the right time. First-team All-American Justin Jackson couldn’t throw it in the desert for most of Monday night, but he scored late and often to finish with 16 points.
Isaiah Hicks was coming off a 1-for-12 game in the Final Four semifinal vs. Oregon, but he hit a running one-hander with 26 seconds left that was the game’s biggest basket and finished with 13 critical points.
UNC was playing in the Final Four for a record 20th time; no other school has more than 17 appearances. Gonzaga was making its first Final Four appearance, with its most famous basketball alum – NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton – in attendance. Adam Morrison, the Gonzaga star who was later a major draft bust for the Charlotte Bobcats, also showed up.
The game was played on a hardwood floor temporarily laid in the middle of the Arizona Cardinals’ football stadium. In some ways that was fitting, for UNC and Gonzaga are two of the most bruising programs in the country. In an era when most teams play with only one true post player and set their four others outside the 3-point circle on offense, UNC and Gonzaga go old-school – two post players, banging their way toward the rim on every possession.
Although most casual basketball fans might classify Gonzaga as a mid-major program, in reality the Bulldogs of Spokane, Wash., haven’t been one of those for a long time. Coach Mark Few has successfully recruited high-major players for years and had just as much pure talent on the court as the Tar Heels and perhaps more.
Perhaps the best example Monday night was this: Gonzaga’s 7-foot freshman Zach Collins might be a lottery pick this summer, and the Zags are so deep that he comes off the bench. (He fouled out of this game, though, with a modest nine points).
At 37-1, Gonzaga’s season had very few ups and downs. It was almost all “ups” for a team that lost only once, to Brigham Young. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, recovered from a number of setbacks – a loss in which they scored only 43 points against Virginia, two defeats at the hands of arch-rival Duke, a 12-point loss to a Georgia Tech team that finished 11th in the ACC.
But each time, the Tar Heels rebounded. They never lost two games in a row all season, and in the NCAA tournament they became masters of the great escape.
Down five points late to Arkansas, they scored the game’s final 12 to win by seven. After blowing all of a seven-point lead in the final minute to Kentucky in the Elite Eight, they got a Luke Maye 18-footer at the buzzer to win by two. After missing four straight free throws in the last six seconds against Oregon, they got two straight offensive rebounds to secure a 77-76 nail-biter.
North Carolina had won five NCAA tournaments before, each year marked indelibly in the school’s basketball history and the hearts of its fans: 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009.
The year “2017” is now added to that list, forever a part of North Carolina lore.