Roy Williams would be the first person to say it wasn’t easy, nor was it pretty, but it was a gritty performance that allowed the North Carolina Tar Heels to overcome a poor shooting night to outlast a tough Gonzaga squad 71-65 to win the Tarheels sixth national title before 76,168 avid basketball fans at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Monday night.
The win comes one year after a heart breaking loss at the buzzer to Villanova in the 2016 title game. It gave Carolina its sixth national title in eleven tries and evened Williams Final record at 3-3 overall at Kansas and North Carolina.
It wasn’t an easy run for the Heels as they survived in close battles with Arkansas and Oregon in route to the championship game. And Monday’s title game shaped up in similar fashion with Carolina falling behind in the first half struggling to make shots from the perimeter early, and found themselves trailing Gonzaga 35-32 heading to the locker room at the half.
Whatever Coach Williams said to his team at the half, he should bottle it, as they came out on a mission running off the first eight points of the second half to go up 40-35 over the Zags. But, Gonzaga wasn’t done and pulled back to within two, 54-52, with just under eight minutes to play in the game.
It was at this point that the night’s most talked about influence, the officiating, started to take its toll, especially on the Zags as the bigs headed by Karnowski and Collins rotated to stay in the game with four fouls. In total 27 fouls were called in the second half. But, missed traveling calls, phantom fouls, and missed calls on in bounds/out of bounds marred the action too. Note, that the calls went both ways, but seemed to effect Gonzaga’s flow more than the Tarheels.
The most influential foul may have been the fourth on Zac Collins, the 7-foot freshman was the only Zag who seemed to have any success versus Carolina’s length. But fouls limited him to just 14 minutes in the game, and that was a game changer in the second half for the Zags.
Down the stretch both teams continued to struggle from the field due to the intensity of their efforts defensively, as you would expect with the score 66-65 in favor of the Tarheels, when Isiah Hicks scored on a put back to put them up 68-65 with 27 seconds left. Gonzaga attacked offensively off the dribble, but Carolina big man Kennedy Meeks came up with a huge block that turned into a Justin Jackson dunk in transition to seal the deal 70-65 as the Heels held on to win 71-65 in a hard fought game.
North Carolina struggled all night from the field going 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 Tarheels did a great job on 7-1 Przemek Karnowski. They bodied him up and kept him away from the rim, as he finished with nine points on 1-of-8 shooting.
Joel Berry, injured ankle and all, won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. He kept the Tar Heels in the game with 22 points and was the only Tarheel to find the range from the perimeter with consistency. He got solid support from Justin Jackson who finished with 16 points despite missing all nine of his three point attempts. Hicks added 13 points and 9 boards, while Meeks who was the star in the Semi-final versus Oregon chipped in 7 points, 10 boards and that huge blok at the end of the game.
Gonzaga was led by 6-4 combo guard Nigel Williams-Goss 15 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists, while his backcourt mate Josh Perkins added 13 points, Collins, Karnowski, and wing man Jonathan Williams chipped in 9 points each in the loss.
Gonzaga had a remarkable season, as the Zags won 37 games, the most in program history, made their first ever final four, proved they belong among the college basketball elite. Depending on who stays and who goes, if the core stays together, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them back here soon.Monday night belonged to North Carolina’s returnees, as six players who played in the final last year took the court again this time around, to erase any hurt or pain left from that loss…something that made this title oh so sweet for this version of Roy Williams Tarheels!