North Carolina Tar Heels' Road to the 2017 National Championship

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistApril 4, 2017

North Carolina Tar Heels' Road to the 2017 National Championship

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    It wasn't always pretty, but the North Carolina Tar Heels earned the program's sixth NCAA Division I men's basketball championship thanks to a 71-65 victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Monday night.

    After a few days of yelling about the officiating, though, history won't remember what was an aesthetically nightmarish second half because of the constant whistles.

    Instead, it'll focus on the night UNC successfully atoned for a heartbreaking defeat to Villanova the year prior and when Roy Williams won his third championship as a head coach.

    We're looking back at what lifted the Tar Heels to the championship and also recapping the teams they eliminated during March Madness en route to celebrating the title.

Focusing on 'Redemption'

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    North Carolina didn't need to create motivation for this season. Losing to Villanova in that jaw-dropping fashion was more than enough.

    And according to Andrew Carter of the News & Observer, the 2016-17 team called its group chat "Redemption."

    The Tar Heels only lost Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige from last year's roster. While those were two significant pieces, UNC didn't need to make a team filled with fresh talent try to harness the pain only returning players could really feel.

    Rather, the only freshman who averaged double-digits was Tony Bradley. Upperclassmen, most notably Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II and Kennedy Meeks, carried this roster.

    And with a 33-7 record, regular-season ACC championship and the national title on the 2016-17 squad's resume, they shouldered that burden all the way to achieving redemption.

"The Ceiling Is the Roof"

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    "The ceiling is the roof," North Carolina legend Michael Jordan proclaimed during the team's regular-season finale against Duke.

    Wait, what now?

    Technically, he's completely correct. In fact, B/R's David Gardner launched an investigation into the phrase, and a Duke professor confirmed its sensibility.

    But no story about UNC's 2016-17 season is complete with...whatever Jordan was trying to say here.

Winning with Size

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    Small-ball lineups have become popular for the simple fact that three is greater than two. However, teams still must win the rebounding battle to excel, and North Carolina had the right pieces up front.

    Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley helped ensure that no other program had more success on the offensive glass this season.

    The Tar Heels ranked No. 1 nationally in both volume and average, totaling 630 in 40 games for a per-game clip of 15.8. Additionally, the big-bodied senior Meeks finished the year averaging 3.8 offensive rebounds, which was seventh in the country.

    North Carolina regularly won the overall rebounding battle and scored more points in the paint than their opponents.

    Solid perimeter play was essential to the championship, but the Tar Heels enjoyed a valuable advantage in the post.

Taming the Tigers

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    Heading into the 2017 tourney, a No. 16 seed had never before defeated a No. 1 since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

    Jackson made sure North Carolina wouldn't be the first.

    The ACC Player of the Year knocked down five three-pointers and scored 19 points during the opening half, guiding the Tar Heels to a dominant 52-27 advantage at the break. They eventually recorded a 103-64 victory over the Texas Southern Tigers.

    Jackson netted a game-high 21 while all four of UNC's rotational post players scored double figures. Hicks (17) led the bunch, followed by Meeks (13), Bradley (12) and Luke Maye (10).

Comeback Against the Razorbacks

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    The Tar Heels couldn't avoid drama for long, though.

    North Carolina entered the matchup with the eighth-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks as clear favorites. However, the SEC program overcame a 17-point first-half deficit and earned a 65-60 edge as the clock ticked below three minutes in regulation.

    But the Heels scored on four straight possessions to take a three-point lead, then Hicks knocked down two free throws and Jackson sealed the victory with a dunk.

    "I don't mind saying I feel a little lucky," Williams said after the 72-65 win, according to Zach Braziller of the New York Post. "Every now and then, I knock in a long putt, too."

Dispatching the 'Dawgs

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    The Sweet 16 game opposite the Butler Bulldogs was the final time North Carolina could be comfortable in the closing minutes.

    After an evenly played five minutes, UNC ripped off a 14-0 run to grab a 15-point advantage and never relinquished control. Another 14-3 spurt before halftime allowed the Tar Heels to take a 52-36 lead into the locker room.

    Butler made two respectable charges in the second half, but North Carolina managed to maintain a double-digit edge for the remainder of the contest and won 92-80.

    While Berry and Jackson combined for 50 points, Maye netted a career-best 16 points. Little did the Tar Heels know the former walk-on was about to take center stage.

Surviving the 'Cats

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    The headlines could've read "Epic Collapse Eliminates Carolina." Instead, Maye saved the day against the Kentucky Wildcats.

    UNC held a 71-64 lead with 54 seconds remaining after Theo Pinson hit a pair of free throws. Likely lottery pick De'Aaron Fox buried a corner three to pull Kentucky within four, and a stunning five-second inbound violation by UNC handed the ball right back.

    Malik Monk, another near-certain top-14 NBA draft selection, capitalized on the error and cut Carolina's advantage to one. A layup from Jackson made it 73-70, but he missed a free throw after a Kentucky turnover, then Monk drilled a wild game-tying three.

    Williams elected not to call a timeout, and Pinson drove the lane before dishing to Maye. The junior rose, fired and connected, giving the Tar Heels a dramatic 75-73 victory.

    Maye, who upped his career-best scoring total to 17, received a standing ovation in his Monday morning class.

Holding Off the Ducks

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    Back-and-forth went the Tar Heels against the Oregon Ducks, who emerged from the Midwest Region to reach the Final Four.

    The score stayed within two possessions for the entire first half except for a brief 24-second period where Oregon led 30-22. North Carolina fought back to secure a 39-36 halftime edge.

    Although the Heels never trailed after the break, they never pulled away despite Oregon shooting a porous 32.4 percent in the second half either. It set up another tight finish, though Jordan Bell's failure to box out after UNC missed four straight free throws stopped the Ducks from attempting a game-winning shot.

    "The thing that's easy to say and easy to understand, we're relieved," Williams said following the 77-76 triumph, per Greg Barnes of Inside Carolina. "We feel very lucky. Feel very fortunate we're still playing, but the fact of the matter is we're still playing."

    Survive and advance—all the way to the championship.

Redemption

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    "Ugly" hardly begins to describe what transpired in the national championship. The officials whistled the Heels and Gonzaga Bulldogs for a combined 27 fouls during the second half, and both teams were in the bonus within seven minutes.

    "It's an amazing game," Williams said on CBS after the game, per Carter. "Both teams played extremely hard. I don't think either team played very well. ... One of the things we had to be was tough enough, and I think we were tough enough tonight."

    But that's merely a footnote.

    Nigel Williams-Goss gave Gonzaga a 65-63 edge with 2:09 remaining, but Jackson responded with an and-one that gave North Carolina a 66-65 lead—one to which it would desperately cling.

    Hicks made a clutch layup, Jackson threw down a game-sealing dunk and Berry added a free throw to provide the 71-65 final. And the Tar Heels stormed the floor in victory.

    Redemption.


    Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.