A year ago, North Carolina lost the national championship on a buzzer-beating dagger.
On Monday, the Tar Heels took the dramatics out of the equation with a fast finish. In the game’s critical moments, everything fell North Carolina’s way in a 71-65 victory over Gonzaga on Monday for the NCAA championship.
All night long, shots didn’t fall … until the Tar Heels needed them to. First, Justin Jackson gave North Carolina the lead for good with a three-point play with 1:40 remaining.
Next, it was Isaiah Hicks, who bought enough time with a hesitation near the basket to shoot over Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams III, opening a three-point lead with 25 seconds remaining.
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Then, the defense came through. North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks blocked Michael Williams-Goss’ midrange jumper, starting a run-out that Jackson finished.
Seconds remained but the North Carolina fans exhaled and felt exalted. A year after Villanova’s Kris Jenkins sank the game winner, the Tar Heels and their redemption was completed.
At the final television time out, Roy Williams had a message for his team.
“If you told me on the first day of practice that we were going to be in this situation, I would have taken it,” Tar Heels Coach Roy Williams said.
North Carolina closed the game on an 8-0 run after Goss-Williams’ jumper gave the Zags’ a 65-63 lead.
The Tar Heels, 33-7, won despite missing 23 of 27 three-point attempts and shooting 36 percent for the game.
Gonzaga, 37-2, couldn’t take advantage because of its poor shooting. The Bulldogs hit 34 percent.
Even the stars struggled. Jackson, the ACC player of the year, missed all nine of his shots from beyond the arc.
Zags’ center Przemek Karnowski missed seven of eight shots and finished with nine points.
North Carolina, the nation’s top rebounding team, got outboarded 49-46, but the Tar Heels kept some key possessions alive in the final minutes.
The dual between the bigs never really materialized because of foul trouble. The whistle-happy crew led by Michael Stephens, called 22 fouls on each team, and Gonzaga suffered a major blow when freshman Zach Collins fouled out with 5 minutes remaining.
Gonzaga was attempting to strike a blow for the mid-major conferences. The champion of the West Coast Conference brought one loss into the championship game and went toe-to-toe with one of the game’s most storied programs.
The Tar Heels’ title is the sixth in program history. Only UCLA with 11 and Kentucky with eight have more. North Carolina broke a tie on the list with Duke and Indiana.
Williams, who spent his first 15 years as a head coach at Kansas, now has three national titles, all while coaching in Chapel Hill. Only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp have more.
The game won’t be remembered for its aesthetics.
“Both teams played extremely hard. I don’t think either team played really well,” Williams said.
Neither side could gain much separation. Gonzaga led most of the first half on the strength of Josh Perkins. The sophomore guard didn’t score in the semifinal victory over South Carolina but he had 13 points in the first half as the Zags forged a 35-32 lead at the break.
North Carolina scored the first eight points of the second half, but the run was quickly answered by Gonzaga.
About five minutes into the second half, the eighth national championship game matching two top seeds bogged down. In the first 11 minutes of the second half, 21 fouls were called. Players didn’t adjust to the tightly called game and play became choppy.
Jackson, Williams-Goss, Karnowski — the headliners couldn’t buy a basket. But North Carolina guard Joel Berry II came up big enough down the stretch and allowed the Tar Heels to keep up.
Berry finished with 22 points and was named most outstanding player of the Final Four.
Williams-Goss tried to keep Gonzaga close at the end. He scored his team’s final eight points, and played the final few seconds on a twisted ankle.
“He is such a warrior,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He blew his ankle and he was still able to get in there and get a shot.”
But in the end, North Carolina proved superior, and finished the job that it couldn’t last year.
“I put it up in the locker room, on the board, one of the things we had to be tonight was tough,” Williams said. “I think this group was tough enough tonight.”