USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken explains how the Tar Heels clawed their way to the national championship by edging Gonzaga.
USA TODAY Sports
GLENDALE, Ariz. — This was a championship game only North Carolina fans could love.
And even their patience was tested by the referees.
A year after Villanova snatched the title from the Tar Heels’ hands in the closing seconds, the referees did their best to hijack this one, too. Sure, North Carolina won its title — that’s No. 6, for those counting, and third since 2005 — with a 71-65 victory against Gonzaga. But all anyone is going to remember is whistle-a-rama.
What had the makings of a wildly entertaining finish became — FWEEE! — an interminable slog Monday night as officials called 11 fouls — FWEEE! — in the first four-plus minutes — FWEEE! — of the second half and 27 over the — FWEEE! — last 20 minutes. Both teams were in the bonus — FWEEE! – with 14 minutes left, bringing the game’s flow and pace — FWEEE! — to a grinding — FWEEE! FWEEE! FWEEE! — halt.
Just reading that makes you want to beat your head against the wall, doesn’t it? Now imagine trying to play through it. In the biggest game of your careers, no less.
“It was an ugly game,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It’s a very difficult game to call. I’m sitting over there, I’m not thinking the officials are doing a terrible job. I swear to goodness, that’s not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking our offense stinks.”
While that’s true, the refs did, too.
Gonzaga’s big men, such a crucial part of the Bulldogs’ game, were effectively neutralized by fouls. Zach Collins picked up his third and fourth fouls within three minutes of coming in for the first time in the second half, the latter coming with 15:53 still to play. Nine seconds later, Przemek Karnowski, got called for his third foul.
Karnowski would pick up his fourth on a flagrant with 8:02 to play while Collins would foul out with five minutes still to play.
“I’m not going to talk about the refs,” Karnowski said. “It was just a physical game.”
The fouls — a whopping 22 for each team — were bad enough, as inconsistent as they were frequent. But replays showed the officials missed a crucial call down the stretch, too.
With about 30 seconds left and North Carolina clinging to a one-point lead, Kennedy Meeks and Silas Melson were scuffling for the ball under the basket when Meeks’ right hand slid over the baseline. Despite a referee standing right on top of them, no call was made.
Meeks got possession and fed Isaiah Hicks, who scored on a jumper to make it a three-point game with 26 seconds left.
“That’s probably on me. I had no idea,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said when he was told about the no-call after the game. “I just — from my angle it didn’t look like it was a situation where there was an out-of-bounds situation or I else I would have called for a review.”
Now, that one call wasn’t what won North Carolina its latest championship. Or cost Gonzaga its first one.
But this wasn’t the game either team expected to play, and both deserved better in an event of this magnitude.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few and several players reflect on the emotional national title game loss.
USA TODAY Sports
“Man I can’t watch this anymore man! I would like to see the kids decide who wins the game! I mean Bruh!! Smh” no less an expert than LeBron James said on Twitter, echoing the sentiments of pretty much everyone, everywhere.
That the officiating was bad — scratch that, awful — was probably fitting given it’s been a theme all tournament. Yes, Kentucky fans, your outrage from the Elite Eight is duly noted.
Actually, officiating has been an issue all year. If this doesn’t prompt the NCAA to consider adding a sixth foul, I don’t know what will.
But the refs ruined what had the potential to be a great national championship. Worse, they stole the spotlight from the ones who deserved it, the players.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE NCAA TITLE GAME