Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Redemption is sweet for UNC as Tar Heels win national championship over Gonzaga

Roy Williams and North Carolina accept national championship trophy after Tar Heels defeat Gonzaga to exorcise demons of last season with sixth NCAA Tournament title. (Photo by Jeffrey A. Camarati/Tar Heel Photo)

Hope, dangles on a string, like slow, spinning redemption.

The hope that North Carolina would vanquish the heartbreak from last April and Kris Jenkins' three-point shot at the buzzer to hand Villanova an unforgettable championship victory was what carried the Tar Heels through the regular season, through their return to the NCAA Tournament.

Redemption.

The well-chronicled group text message thread among the incumbent UNC players carried that one-word title, a simple reminder of the common goal within the program to reach the summit of college basketball once again after being pushed off the top of the mountain in one of the cruelest ways possible.

Monday night saw the Tar Heels put it all to rest, standing vindicated after a 71-65 victory over Gonzaga, bringing a sixth national championship to Chapel Hill.

Needing to rely on their defense to pull out a tug-of-war that served as a stark contrast to their usual uptempo stylings, UNC (33-7) endured prolonged cold spells from the floor as they struggled to shoot in the cavernous confines of University of Phoenix Stadium. The Tar Heels trailed by as many as seven points in the first half before going on a late 9-3 run to draw within one point, and went to the halftime trailing the Bulldogs by a 35-32 margin, a favorable scenario given their 31 percent shooting in the opening stanza and anemic 2-for-13 showing from three-point range, which included an 0-for-6 ledger from Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year Justin Jackson.

"I tried to be more positive and I told them, 'last year, we were ahead at halftime and the other team came out more focused than we did,'" said head coach Roy Williams, who became just the sixth coach to win at least three national championships. "It was our job to come out more focused than Gonzaga."

The Tar Heels carried their momentum out of the locker room, scoring the first eight points after the intermission to take a five-point lead over Gonzaga (37-2) with 17:40 remaining in regulation, putting the final touches on a 17-5 run that bridged the end of the first half with the beginning of the second. But the Bulldogs, playing like a poised veteran outfit and not like the squad that was making its initial title game appearance, stormed back with eight unanswered points of their own, forging a 43-40 lead after Przemek Karnowski's first field goal of the night with 14:24 to play.

The two sides traded blows for the next several minutes before Joel Berry II, the only Tar Heel to make a three-pointer Monday evening, drained a shot beyond the arc to swing the pendulum again with 12:37 remaining, putting UNC ahead 47-45. More than six minutes elapsed before the lead grew bigger than four points, with Isaiah Hicks' basket at the 6:23 mark expanding the Tar Heel advantage to 56-52. A basket by Zach Collins on the ensuing possession started an 8-3 run for Gonzaga, who surged ahead with 4:37 left on Nigel Williams-Goss' three, which gave the Zags a slim 60-59 cushion. 

The lead was short-lived, however, as Berry's long-distance attempt on the next trip down the floor splashed through the net and tipped the scales back toward UNC. The Bulldogs then scored five of the next six points, with Williams-Goss fighting off an injured ankle to hit a jumper with 1:53 on the clock, giving the plucky West Coast Conference champions a 65-63 lead. It would be the last advantage Gonzaga would enjoy, as a conventional three-point play by Jackson put UNC on top to stay just thirteen seconds later.

Inside the final minute, it appeared that the Zags would have a chance to retake the lead during a scramble for a loose ball following an errant three-point attempt by Berry. However, Kennedy Meeks came down with the rebound while UNC had the possession arrow in their favor, a controversial call as his right hand appeared to extend beyond the baseline and out of bounds. With a fresh shot clock, the Tar Heels methodically went about their plan of attack on the next possession, going up 68-65 with 25.4 seconds to play after Hicks penetrated his way through the lane to convert on a jump hook.

After head coach Mark Few called a timeout to set up Gonzaga's potential game-tying attempt, Williams-Goss' jumper was blocked by Meeks. The senior forward immediately dished to Berry, who found Jackson for a breakaway dunk that served as the exclamation point on the latest celebration both in Arizona and on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, and also the burial of last April's heartache.

Berry led all scorers with 22 points, becoming the first player to record 20-point games in consecutive national championships since Bill Walton turned the trick for UCLA in three straight between 1972 and 1974. Jackson and Hicks reached double figures in the win for UNC as well, scoring 16 and 13 points, respectively. For Gonzaga, Williams-Goss led the way with 15 points while Josh Perkins chipped in with 13 of his own, all in the first half. While the Bulldogs were denied a taste of championship glory in their initial attempt to attain it, the victorious side basked in a long-awaited coronation, made even sweeter by enduring the road they traveled on the way.

"I was in tears, just because we had worked so hard to get back to this point," Berry; who earned Most Outstanding Player honors, said on ESPN's SportsCenter after the final buzzer. "All we just had on our minds was redemption from last year, and when that confetti fell and it was on our side, it was the greatest feeling in the world."

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