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The North Carolina Tar Heels are national champions.
One year after a heartbreaking loss to Villanova at this same stage, the Tar Heels beat Gonzaga, 71-65, in a choppy, back-and-forth title game. This year, it was the Tar Heels that made clutch plays down the stretch and spilled out onto the the court in celebration.
Playing in its 11th NCAA tournament final, North Carolina won its sixth national title, and third under Roy Williams, who is rapidly rising toward a potential spot on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches.
The game was far from a classic — until the final five minutes. A foul-riddled second half put both teams in the bonus midway through the second period, and neither squad could hit a jump shot. Some of the most exciting plays were scraps for loose balls and, regrettably, controversial calls.
But with the game tight down the stretch, the final minutes were as nerve-racking as any. Up one point with under a minute to play, Kennedy Meeks fought for a loose ball, and claimed it via a jump ball and the possession arrow — though his hand looked to be out of bounds while he was touching the ball. Isaiah Hicks then made a clutch shot driving to his right to put North Carolina up three.
Not one, but two subsequent defensive plays won the game for UNC. Kennedy Meeks rejected Nigel Williams-Goss’ shot, and Justin Jackson’s dunk with 12 seconds left put the Tar Heels up five.
A stolen pass on the very next possession sealed the national championship.
North Carolina’s shooting all game was horrendous. It went 4 for 27 from beyond the arc, and made just 36 percent of its total field goal attempts. It missed 11 free throws. Gonzaga’s 3-point shooting was much better, but it couldn’t score around the rim.
The Tar Heels stifled Przemek Karnowski all game. They bodied him up, bumped him, crowded him, and kept him away from the rim. His off-balance shots often found glass and rim, but not the bottom of the net. The big Pole finished with nine points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Joel Berry, injured ankle and all, was the star for Carolina, and won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. He kept the Tar Heels in the game with 22 points two days after going 2-for-14 from the field against Oregon. He was the only North Carolina player who could hit outside shots in the first half, and he put them through in a tight second half, too.
Berry and defense won the game for the Tar Heels. They held Gonzaga to 0.88 points per possession, and 12-for-40 from 2-point range.
Gonzaga led for much of the first half, but couldn’t pull away despite hot shooting. That failure came back to haunt the Zags in the second half.
North Carolina went to both Meeks and Hicks in the post early and often. Meeks drew first blood in his matchup with Karnowski by facing up and smoothly draining a 14-foot jumper. Karnowski missed his first two turnaround shots.
With the paint clogged and passing lanes tight, Gonzaga took an early lead on 3-point attempts. It hit three of its first four, and got two more points via free throws after Perkins was fouled while rising for a shot from beyond the arc.
Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams also made his first two field goals, both left-handed hooks. The second one gave the Zags a 21-14 advantage — one they’d hold until the second half.
Berry was crucial to Carolina’s early efforts. He looked spry, and knocked down his first two 3-point attempts, both from the left side. He was fouled on his third, and knocked down all three freebies.
As Berry heated up, though, Jackson struggled. Despite being presented with a few open looks, he missed all six of his first-half 3-pointers. Gonzaga’s guards, even at a size disadvantage, did an outstanding job playing clean, physical defense on the Tar Heel star. Jackson would finish with 16 points, but on 19 shots, and he missed all nine of his 3-point attempts.
Both teams tightened things up on the defensive end midway through the first half. North Carolina held Gonzaga to two points over a nearly-six-minute stretch, but still trailed because it couldn’t get its offense going on the other end.
The catalyst for Gonzaga in the first half was Josh Perkins. Two days after going scoreless against South Carolina, the junior drained three 3-pointers and tallied 13 first-half points. Perkins, however, wouldn’t score in the second half.
North Carolina trailed by as many as seven, but got the ball to the rim over the final two minutes of the half, and attacked the offensive glass ravenously. Gonzaga controlled the boards for much of the half, but conceded five offensive rebounds to the Tar Heels over the final four minutes. Despite shooting just 30.6 percent from the field in the first half, and 2-of-13 from deep, Carolina trailed by only three, 35-32, at halftime.
North Carolina took its first lead since the 15:42 mark of the first half after forcing two Gonzaga turnovers to open the second. Defense propelled an 8-0 Tar Heel run. But Gonzaga answered with a three-point play from Collins and a corner 3 from Mathews off a well-designed inbound play.
Collins, though, headed to the bench a minute later after picking up his fourth foul on an extremely questionable call. The freshman 7-footer was Gonzaga’s most effective post player, but his time on the court was limited to 14 minutes due to foul trouble.
The other freshman big, Killian Tillie, made a huge play after replacing Collins. He dove to the floor to recover a loose ball, and flipped it to Karnowski for a layup.
The second half devolved into a defensive battle, which is a nice way of saying that it got ugly. Gonzaga went cold from beyond the arc. Fouls piled up. There were 44 total fouls called over the 40 minutes. By the eight-minute mark of the second half, Karnowski, Williams and Collins all had four — one away from disqualification. Collins would foul out with around five minutes left.
Gonzaga kept pace from the free throw line, but at one point went over seven minutes without a made field goal. North Carolina took a 54-52 lead into the under-eight timeout.
The lid came off the basket for Gonzaga with just over five minutes to go when Williams banked in a 3-pointer from the right wing. Williams-Goss drilled a 3-pointer to re-take the lead, but Berry answered on the following possession to put North Carolina back up two.
The teams went back and forth down the stretch, but it was North Carolina that made just enough plays to win, and to avenge last year’s crushing loss.
Gonzaga came up just short on its first Final Four adventure, but the loss does not at all tarnish what was a remarkable season. The Zags won 37 games, the most in program history. They’ve cemented themselves among the college basketball elite, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them back here soon.
Monday was North Carolina’s night, though. Six players who played in the final 364 days ago took the court again this time around. Last year’s loss gnawed at the Tar Heels’ collective soul for a full year. In the end, it just made this title all the more sweet.
More NCAA tournament coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Everyone thought the title game refs were bad … even LeBron
• Way-too-early Top 25 for the 2017-18 college basketball season
• Joel Berry II wins NCAA tourney’s Most Outstanding Player award
• UNC couldn’t fill its student section, so ASU students stepped in