Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Carolina players get redemption, but there’s conflict in their championship

North Carolina coach Roy Williams and players celebrate after winning the NCAA championship game over Gonzaga on Monday, April 3, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams and players celebrate after winning the NCAA championship game over Gonzaga on Monday, April 3, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. AP

To hear North Carolina players and coaches tell it, the Tar Heels’ showdown against Gonzaga on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium was a quest for atonement after the torment of last year’s last-second loss to Villanova in the national title game.

And there was ample redemption in the 71-65 victory over Gonzaga that was delivered with an 8-0 run in the last 1 minute, 40 seconds and a key basket by Isaiah Hicks.

On this night a year ago, Hicks had sought to take the blame for Kris Jenkins of Villanova being left open for the game-winning shot.

Now, players were on the court trying to hold back tears of joy after a foul with 7 seconds left, and junior Theo Pinson finally was free to change the screen saver on his cell phone from the image he had of himself in the losing locker room last year, slumped in his chair with a towel over his head.

By all indications from those who see the team regularly, it’s a charming group of players who are good ambassadors for a school that at least in one way reaffirmed its place in college basketball lore.

As Gonzaga was playing in its first national title game, the Tar Heels were playing in their 11th and winning their sixth — including three now for coach Roy Williams, one more than mentor Dean Smith.

“I don’t think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him,” Williams said on the court after the game.

But if this made some amends for last year, there remains much more to be reconciled at Carolina, an inescapable fact that was front and present moments after the end of the game.

When NCAA president Mark Emmert was introduced on the floor to present the championship trophy, he was immediately and emphatically booed by UNC fans.

See fans -- in 35 seconds -- flood Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, N.C., to celebrate the UNC Tar Heels winning the NCAA National Championship on Monday night, April 3, 2017. (Travis Long/News & Observer)

This wasn’t just random jeering of authority.

This was because the NCAA has had the audacity to try to hold North Carolina accountable for an appalling academic scandal that is against everything the student-athlete concept purports to be about.

So if you’re not a Carolina loyalist, or even if you are, there is a certain conflict and awkwardness in this championship if you care about what all of this is supposed to stand for.

Now, UNC fans might legitimately be frustrated by the six-year-and-counting pace of the investigation, too.

“I used to say I hoped it was over with before I retired,” Williams said late Monday night. “Now I’m saying I hope it’s over with before I die.”

But even the interminable process can be traced back to the school’s initial dawdling and lack of cooperation and later poking at the NCAA:

The never-ending story was further extended when North Carolina in December received a third notice of allegations, one that the school itself tempted when it questioned the NCAA’s jurisdiction after a softened second notice had been issued.

The sharpened tone of the third was underscored by a preview letter to the school from the Committee on Infractions that said the case “appears to implicate issues at the very core of the Collegiate Model,” as reported by CBSSports.com.

In a certain sense, it’s unfair that this is in the air because the stigma lurks over players who weren’t there and don’t deserve to be tarnished by association, players whose reputations aren’t in question.

Trouble is, the questions remains for the institution and Williams, including what did they know and when did they know it about a time frame of fraud going back more than two decades through 2011.

Williams will tell you he’s hurt that his credibility has been called into question.

“The last three or four years have been very hard …,” he said after the game. “People questioned my integrity and that means more to me than anything.”

And he continues to deny “we did anything wrong” even as he acknowledges the passive stuff happened concept and that he’s “mad, sad, ticked off … embarrassed and all those things” that this hovers over “our institution.”

“Were there some mistakes made? You're darned right there were,” he said Sunday. “Were there some things I wish hadn't happened? You're darned right. But there were no allegations against men's basketball.”

It remains conceivable, though, that penalties ahead could include the vacating of the 2005 and 2009 national championships.

But at least there’s not a whiff of illegitimacy to this one in and of itself after a game the Tar Heels gritted out despite making just four of 27 three-pointers and 26 of 73 field goals overall and trailing late again.

This time they rallied down the stretch to fend off any last-second threats by Gonzaga.

“You know what? Now I can say forget about that shot from last year and talk about how we came out here and won,” said Joel Berry, the most outstanding player of the Final Four. “You’re only as good as your last headline, so the headline now is that North Carolina is the 2017 national champions.”

And so they found fulfillment in the moment, one these players can and should bask in, even as the unsettling broader picture remains to be resolved and understood.

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