With 1:40 remaining in regulation of the NCAA Championship, the North Carolina Tar Heels were deadlocked with their title game opponent, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, at 65 points apiece. A year earlier, the Tar Heels were tied with mere seconds on the scoreboard in the title game before being eliminated by a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins. But the Tar Heels wouldn’t let it happen again.
UNC guard Justin Jackson, who was off his A-game throughout the contest, gave the Tar Heels a one-point lead on a converted free throw attempt, but it was Isaiah Hicks’ shot with 27 seconds that swung the momentum towards UNC for good. A thrilling dunk on a fast break by Jackson increased the Tar Heel lead to five, essentially clinching victory. Joel Berry III, named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, intercepted a Gonzaga pass on their next possession and added another point on a free throw to cap off the 71-65 North Carolina victory.
Make no mistake, the title game wasn’t pretty. The teams combined for 22 fouls and shot 52 free throws. North Carolina made only 35.6% of their shots and only four of 27 three pointers, while Gonzaga shot 33.9% from the floor and had 14 turnovers. Gonzaga big man Zach Collins fouled out near the end of regulation and multiple Bulldogs were a foul away from also getting the boot.
North Carolina was fine with that. The Tar Heels hustled, dove, and rebounded, and even though the final rebounding totals tipped in Gonzaga’s favor 49-46, the Bulldogs were forced to play to North Carolina’s strengths and came up short.
The Bulldogs put forth a valiant effort and were in control of the game for most of the hall. But for most of the game, it seemed only one of the Gonzaga players, Nigel Williams-Goss, was worthy of playing on the biggest stage in the sport. Williams-Goss carried the Gonzaga team in the second half and tallied 15 points, nine rebounds, and six assists in 39 minutes, all team-highs.
But he didn’t have much help from his supporting cast. Przemek Karnowski, the Gonzaga star big man, had the worst game I’ve ever seen from a basketball player, making only one of eight field goal attempts (which means 2 or 3 pointers) and committing four fouls as well as four turnovers. For some reason, Karnowski still played 29 minutes and his performance was a primary reason that Gonzaga came up short. Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins made a trio of first-half three-pointers but cooled off in the second half. Aside from Perkins and Williams-Goss, no Bulldog scored in double-digits.
UNC didn’t have their best performance either, but they did enough. Berry stole the show with 22 points and all four of the UNC three-pointers, and contributed a team-high six assists to only one turnover. Jackson was off the mark for most of the game with 6 of 19 field goal shooting but tallied 16 points, including three of the final six. The frontcourt tandem of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks was dominant and combined for 20 points and 19 rebounds.
Last year’s title game was one of the most devastating conclusions that I’ve ever seen. The Tar Heels were seconds away from the title and were forced to say “maybe next year.” Even in the jubilation of this championship, the Villanova loss will never be forgotten, but this year UNC proved, again, that the Tar Heels are champions.