North Carolina lost last year's national title game to Villanova on Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beater. But the Tar Heels were the ones dancing as the confetti fell this year.
Basketball royalty reigned supreme Monday, as North Carolina added to its illustrious history with a 71-65 victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the 2017 national championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
The Tar Heels' victory marked their sixth national title—which ranks third all time behind UCLA and Kentucky—and first since the 2008-09 campaign. It was also the program's third championship under coach Roy Williams. The Bulldogs (37-2) made their first Final Four but couldn't eclipse North Carolina (33-7) on the marquee stage.
North Carolina continued an extended run of excellence:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Decades of excellence for UNC. https://t.co/YdZTHcACdA4/4/2017, 3:52:24 AM
The Tar Heels were the No. 1 seed in the South Region and beat No. 16-seeded Texas Southern, No. 8-seeded Arkansas, No. 4-seeded Butler, No. 2-seeded Kentucky and Midwest Region No. 3 seed Oregon to reach Monday's clash, and players such as junior guard Joel Berry II, junior forward-guard Justin Jackson and senior forward Kennedy Meeks cemented their status in North Carolina lore with the title.
Jackson and Meeks made clutch plays for North Carolina at winning time after Nigel Williams-Goss scored eight straight Gonzaga points to put his team up 65-63 with less than two minutes remaining.
Jackson converted an and-1 to seize the lead for good, and Meeks blocked Williams-Goss with the Tar Heels up three and just 15 seconds on the clock. The swat led to a Jackson dunk in the open floor that all but sealed the win. For good measure, Meeks notched a steal on the ensuing Bulldogs possession.
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Those plays helped North Carolina join an exclusive club, as ESPN Stats & Info noted:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
North Carolina: 4th team to win title after finishing runner-up prior season; previous was Kentucky in 19984/4/2017, 3:41:01 AM
Jackson and Meeks may have played the roles of late-game heroes, but Berry led all players with 22 points:
|North Carolina Leaders|
|Joel Berry II||22||3||6||2||1||7-of-19|
Williams-Goss scored 15 points but didn't receive much offensive help. Josh Perkins was the only other Gonzaga player to score in double figures, and he tallied all 13 of his points in the first half.
Despite the late drama, the majority of the game could only be described as ugly. There were 44 combined fouls and just 46 made field goals, and the victorious Tar Heels shot an abysmal 4-of-27 from three-point range (14.8 percent). The Bulldogs shot just 33.9 percent from the field, and star big man Przemek Karnowski finished a mere 1-of-8.
The officials played a major part in the game, as four players were whistled for four fouls apiece and Gonzaga's Zach Collins fouled out. Also, Isaiah Hicks' basket that put North Carolina ahead 68-65 in the final minute came after Meeks' hand appeared to be out of bounds while he tied up Silas Melson for possession of the ball.
What's more, Karnowski was whistled for a flagrant foul for making contact with Berry's neck on the same play Berry was called for a common foul. The Associated Press (h/t Dallas Morning News) reported the sequence resulted in "booing from every corner of the massive Phoenix University Stadium."
The Bulldogs' No. 1 defense in Ken Pomeroy's pace-adjusted rankings set the tone for the majority of the first half, and Gonzaga built a 35-32 lead.
The Tar Heels struggled to penetrate against the Bulldogs' size and settled for quick perimeter jumpers. The sight of Karnowski in front of the rim was likely intimidating, as ESPN The Magazine's Mina Kimes analogized:
Mina Kimes @minakimes
karnowski looks like the first of ten guys james bond has to fight before he can get to the main villain4/4/2017, 1:52:11 AM
With Gonzaga protecting the paint, North Carolina shot a mere 2-of-13 from deep and 30.6 percent overall in the first half. But the Bulldogs didn't extend their advantage on the other end because Karnowski missed all four of his shots, as ESPN's Maximiliano Bretos noted:
Maximiliano Bretos @mbretosESPN
Karnowski shooting. #nationalchampionship https://t.co/QEsiMqhdRC4/4/2017, 2:03:22 AM
Meanwhile, Perkins carried the Gonzaga offense, which probably caught the Tar Heels off guard considering he went scoreless in the Bulldogs' Final Four victory over South Carolina:
The second half started in ominous fashion for Gonzaga even though it bounced back from North Carolina's opening 8-0 run with an 8-0 spurt of its own. Collins picked up his third and fourth fouls in the opening five minutes, which put more pressure on the struggling Karnowski.
Those whistles were part of the foul fest, and both teams found themselves in the bonus before the under-12-minute timeout.
NBA stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade described the scene:
LeBron James @KingJames
Man I can't watch this anymore man! I would like to see the kids decide who wins the game! I mean Bruh!! Smh4/4/2017, 3:11:43 AM
Let these kids play. Put the whistles away.4/4/2017, 3:06:54 AM
With so many fouls—which also included Meeks' fourth with 9:42 to play—neither team established a rhythm, and the players continued to throw up bricks. That allowed the Bulldogs to survive Collins' absence for the majority of the second half, though Karnowski and Johnathan Williams also picked up their fourth fouls.
Between the foul-induced frontcourt attrition and poor shooting, momentum was not on either squad's side heading into the closing stretch.
Williams-Goss temporarily seized it for the Bulldogs when he went into takeover mode on the offensive end, but Jackson's and-1, Hicks' controversial basket and Meeks' defense were too much for Gonzaga to overcome in crunch time.
ESPN College Basketball shared video of the celebration in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:
ESPN College BBall @ESPNCBB
And so it begins on Franklin Street ... https://t.co/ZEjECzPQqU4/4/2017, 4:21:09 AM
NCAA March Madness passed along postgame comments by Meeks and Berry:
NCAA March Madness @marchmadness
“It just shows how hard we worked.” - National Champion Kennedy Meeks https://t.co/1LUtf4yWRI4/4/2017, 4:38:14 AM
NCAA March Madness @marchmadness
“We finally got what we wanted!” - National Champion Joel Berry II https://t.co/fcVfMmfNKr4/4/2017, 4:37:54 AM
"It was a slugfest out there," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, per Kevin Armstrong of the New York Daily News. "It's two teams that desperately wanted to be crowned national champion. And I think to be so close for us is a temporarily crushing blow right now."
Williams, who passed former Tar Heels coach Dean Smith with his third title, discussed his place in North Carolina history, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com): "I think of Coach Smith, there's no question. I don't think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him. But we got three because I've got these guys with me, and that's all I care about right now—my guys."