Scott Fowler

How Joel Berry and his band of brothers pushed UNC past ‘almost’ to a national title

Joel Berry knew all about what confetti felt like on your shoulders. The problem was that the confetti a year ago was meant for someone else, as Villanova edged North Carolina in the final seconds in the national final.

The Tar Heels had their heart broken then. But they pieced it back together, day by day, week by week, until finally one year later, they got the redemption – and the Carolina blue confetti – they had wanted.

UNC beat Gonzaga 71-65 on Monday night with one last great escape. Down 65-63 with less than two minutes to go, the Tar Heels scored the final eight points to break open a taut, sloppy game.

No one was more important than Berry, who led the Tar Heels with 22 points and six assists. Playing at less than 100 percent, he was running around on two gimpy ankles. But whenever the Tar Heels seemed to be about to fall well behind Gonzaga – and that happened on several occasions – it was Berry who would nail a three-pointer and keep it close.

Said Berry: “I wanted that confetti to be for us. ... It’s just an unbelievable feeling. ... And the ups and downs that we’ve had? It’s all worth it.”

North Carolina now has six NCAA tournament national titles, and half of them have been won under coach Roy Williams. The coach surpassed his beloved mentor, Dean Smith, who won two national titles himself. Williams did it because of players such as Berry, Charlotte’s Kennedy Meeks (a huge block and steal in the last 16 seconds), Justin Jackson (16 points, including five of those final eight) and Isaiah Hicks (13 points and a huge basket with 26 seconds to go).

“Isaiah – my boy has been struggling like a dog,” Williams said, laughingly referring to Hicks. “But tonight he looked like a greyhound.”

“I had to pinch myself,” Hicks said after the game. “It’s so surreal.”

Gonzaga coach Mark Few was classy in defeat, refusing to blame the officials for his team’s constant foul trouble. He praised North Carolina for its defense, which held Gonzaga to 33.9 percent. Said Few: “It was their length, it was their physicality – they won this game with their defense, quite frankly.”

“Almost” is a cruel word, threaded with longing and regret. It is particularly cruel if it applies for two consecutive years, and it almost did for North Carolina.

The Tar Heels trailed 65-63 with 1:53 to go after a jumper by Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss, and they would need one last great escape if they were going to avoid last season’s fate. When you end up No. 2, you know all too well it never takes long before someone asks who was No. 1. Ask the Carolina Panthers about that one.

In 2016, Villanova beat UNC on a last-second three-pointer by Kris Jenkins, who this time was in the North Carolina fan section cheering for the player he refers to as his brother, Nate Britt.

Gonzaga looked very much like it could win the game. But UNC stacked one great play on top of another in the final 100 seconds: An old-fashioned three-point play from Jackson, a tough jumper from Hicks, a block from Meeks, a dunk by Jackson off an assist by Berry and then a steal by Meeks.

Berry ended it, fittingly, with his 22nd and final point on a free throw.

“I was able to put my pain aside,” Berry said. “I just wanted to go out there and compete with my brothers.”

He did that, and that Carolina blue brotherhood came away with the same sort of redemption that Clemson got in the NCAA football championship a few months ago. There is no “almost” anymore for these Tar Heels. They are champions again. 

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