Isaiah Hicks made the powerful drive. Kennedy Meeks blocked the big shot. Justin Jackson provided an exclamation point.
A year after falling short on this very stage, North Carolina stood tall Monday night, outlasting Gonzaga 71-65 in a white-knuckled finish to produce the school’s sixth national title.
The Tar Heels celebrated on the court. Forward Theo Pinson hurled the ball into the air. Hicks hugged his teammates. Through it all was Roy Williams, coaching in his ninth Final Four, winning his third national championship, joining a select group that includes John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Adolph Rupp and Jim Calhoun. Backup point guard Nate Britt said this week the 66-year-old coach with the Carolina drawl had gotten softer over the last few years.
Williams did it this year with a forest of big men, a group that pounded the offensive glass. At times throughout the regular season, they looked like America’s best team, but to win their sixth national title, the Tar Heels had to overcome adversity. They shot 36.8 percent in Saturday’s semifinal win over Oregon, nearly coughing up a six-point lead in the closing minute. In Monday’s final, they overcame horrid shooting from 3-point range – 4 of 27 – and a Gonzaga outfit that never went away until the final minute.
BOX SCORE: UNC 71, Gonzaga 65
Throughout the regular season, last season’s disappointment, losing to Villanova in the title game, fueled their desire. The Tar Heels communicated through a group text message they entitled, “Redemption.” They were a looser bunch, but still committed. Their scare came in Saturday’s semifinal, letting Oregon hang around until it almost cost them.
Monday, they finished the job.
With 30 seconds left, senior forward Hicks drove right, a powerful drive that banked off the glass, giving North Carolina a 68-65 with 22 seconds left. Then came Meeks’ block, which started the celebration. Joel Berry finished with 22 points. Jackson had 16. The Tar Heels shot just 40.5 percent.
Trailing 35-32 at halftime, North Carolina opened the second half with eight straight points to take its biggest lead, 40-35. After a timeout, Gonzaga settled, just as it did after South Carolina had run off a 16-0 run in Saturday’s semifinal. Zach Collins scored in the lane was fouled. Jordan Mathews sank a corner 3. Just like that, the Bulldogs were back up, 41-40.
But then the whistles started. Gonzaga’s top sub – Collins – was forced to the bench after picking up his fourth foul with 15:53 left in the contest. He wasn’t alone. Over the second half’s first 7:15, officials called 15 fouls. Both teams were in the bonus with 14 minutes left, turning the national championship into a free-throw competition.
With just under 10 minutes left, North Carolina big man Meeks – who had 25 points and 14 rebounds in Saturday’s win over Oregon – picked up his fourth foul. By the 8-minute mark, Gonzaga’s top three post players – Collins, Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams – all had four.
Freshman Tony Bradley and Hicks scored inside to give North Carolina a 56-52 lead, but Gonzaga didn’t go away. Collins scored inside and Williams hit a 3 to put Gonzaga back on top. Back and forth it went. Two teams that had struggled shooting for the entire contest – North Carolina was just 3 of 25 from 3-point range – starting to warm up.
Berry hit a 3, Nigel Williams-Goss answered. Williams-Goss scored in the post, Jackson converted a 3-point play, giving North Carolina a 66-65 lead with 1:30 to go.
The first half didn’t feature as many whistles, but it was not a work of art, either. As expected, North Carolina started 6-foot-6 forward Theo Pinson on Gonzaga point guard Williams-Goss. It didn’t much matter Pinson’s length limited Williams-Goss’ scoring, but not his playmaking.
Gonzaga got better looks in the early minutes. Josh Perkins picked up a loose ball, quickly squared up and sank a 3 for a 19-14 lead. Perkins had 13 first-half points, more than he had scored in any game since Feb. 23, a stretch of 10 games. He hadn’t even scored in Gonzaga’s national semifinal wins over South Carolina, missing two shots in 22 minutes.
Not long after Perkins’ 3 – his second of three in the first half – Williams scored in the lane, giving Gonzaga a 7-0 run and a seven-point lead.
Slowed on the offensive glass to start, North Carolina – the nation’s top rebounding team – started makings its mark, clawing back with grit and hustle. Jackson put back a Pinson miss. With two minutes left, Berry – playing on sore ankles – drew a foul while shooting a 3, the second time he had done so in the first half. Berry sank all three, bringing North Carolina to within 30-28.
Gonzaga led 35-32 at halftime, but both teams had reasons to feel good. Gonzaga had built a lead despite getting no scoring from big man Karnowski. On the other side, North Carolina had shot 30.6 percent over the first 20 minutes, but it remained a one-possession contest. Jackson, the Tar Heels’ All-American had six points, but was 0 of 6 from 3-point range.
Gonzaga led for nearly 15 minutes in the first half.