UNC Earns Sweet Redemption with Gritty NCAA Championship Win over Gonzaga

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterApril 4, 2017

North Carolina's Theo Pinson (1) celerates with head coach Roy Williams and the rest of the players after the finals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against Gonzaga, Monday, April 3, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. North Carolina won 71-65. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Roy Williams leaned against a railing on the stage at center court and watched the "One Shining Moment" montage between his wife Wanda and grandchildren.

As soon as Luke Maye's last-second shot against Kentucky in the Elite Eight fell through the basket on the big screen, Williams threw his arms into the arm and screamed "Yeah!"

That's the shot that will live in Carolina history.

On Monday night inside University of Phoenix Stadium, where North Carolina finished off Gonzaga 71-65, there was no shot. No beauty, even. Mostly just whistles and muck, a national championship hard on the eyes.

Even the confetti release was off, coming nearly 20 seconds after the final buzzer had sounded.

This was not a Hollywood ending.

But it was redemption.

The Tar Heels are the national champions, and no one can take that away from them.

A year ago, it was ripped from them with the flick of the wrist by Villanova's Kris Jenkins, right over the reach of Isaiah Hicks.

In the weeks that followed, the UNC players could not get away from reliving their moment on the wrong side of history.

"Every time you turn on the TV, it's 'the shot,'" Justin Jackson said.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Heels spent this postseason getting asked over and over again about Jenkins' buzzer-beating three-pointer, and they had another reminder right behind their bench Monday night. Jenkins, stepbrother of Tar Heels guard Nate Britt, sat in the front row.

Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss was doing his best to become the next Carolina dream-killer, and with 1:53 left on the clock, he banked in a go-head shot to put the Bulldogs up 65-63. He had scored eight straight points, and there was a sense he was taking control of the game.

But North Carolina never gave Williams-Goss a chance to play Jenkins, finishing with an 8-0 run.

The three Tar Heels who were also on the floor a year ago for Jenkins' game-winner all got a chance to make the difference this time.

It started with Jackson, whom Williams-Goss had neutralized most of the night by rarely letting him get the ball in scoring spots.

Jackson nearly left for the NBA a year ago—he declared for the draft but decided to return to school—and his improved three-point shooting and emergence as a go-to scorer were big reasons North Carolina got back to this point.

"Nobody thought we could do it because we lost Brice [Johnson] and we lost Marcus [Paige]," Tar Heels assistant C.B. McGrath said. "I don't even know if I thought we could do it. But they just toughed out the whole tournament. We didn't play good. We didn't play our best. But we just toughed it out."

Jackson missed all nine of his threes Monday, but he used his intelligence to score what turned out to be the game-winner. Jackson knew Williams-Goss had been overplaying him on down screens, so he faked toward the wing and cut to the basket. Theo Pinson found Jackson for an and-one layup with 1:40 left.

"Thank goodness he fouled me and I was able to get it up and make the free throw," Jackson said.

Hicks had been the player who relived "the shot" in his head more than anyone else. He took the blame for allowing Jenkins to make the three, and he'd struggled through much of this NCAA tournament, failing to reach double figures in the previous four games.

"He did all he could last year," McGrath said. "He guarded three people on that last play."

But Hicks had the chance to play hero Monday, and he scored the biggest bucket of the game when he hung in the air and banked in a layup over Gonzaga's Johnathan Williams to give North Carolina a three-point lead in the final minute.

"It was the biggest play of the game," Roy Williams said.

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 03: Przemek Karnowski #24 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs handles the ball against Kennedy Meeks #3 and Isaiah Hicks #4 of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second half during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at Uni
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

UNC's Kennedy Meeks, who watched Jenkins' shot helplessly from the bench last year, made another huge play when he swatted the Williams-Goss attempt that the Zags needed to have a shot in the final seconds.

"I just tried to do a great job," Meeks said. "He'd attacked the basket the last couple of times and hit some big-time shots. I tried to be there for Theo, who was guarding him. God took control after that."

Joel Berry II, who guarded Villanova pitchman Ryan Arcidiacono on the final play last year, scooped up the ball and threw it ahead to Jackson for the game-sealing dunk.

Berry, playing on injured ankles, had kept the Tar Heels in it all night when his teammates could not hit shots.

"If I could have, I would've taken a picture and shown you guys all of the bruising I had on my ankle," said Berry, who scored a game-high 22 points. "I played games with the bruising on there. I never sugarcoat anything. I fought through it. I was legit hurt. It was my heart. It was the way I grew up."

Williams wrote "tough enough" on a board in the North Carolina locker room before his players took the floor Monday night, and that was the story of this win and their tourney run.

"He said it's a man's game," Jackson said. "He kinda got into us a little bit. He mentioned that last year we were up five at halftime and we came out and Villanova was the aggressor. We were down three, so we had to be the aggressor. We came out and hit them in the mouth."

And they got their redemption.

    

C.J. Moore covers college basketball and football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR. Advanced stats provided by KenPom.com unless otherwise noted. Recruiting info provided by Scout.com.

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