Tar Heels' Title Shows UNC Can Still Hang with Game's Blue Bloods in Its Own Way

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagApril 4, 2017

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 03:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels celebrates with Kennedy Meeks #3 and Nate Britt #0 of the North Carolina Tar Heels after defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 3, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. The Tar Heels defeated the Bulldogs 71-65.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

GLENDALE, Arizona — The 66-year-old Hall of Famer with the surgically repaired knee walked gingerly along the black carpet that led to North Carolina's locker room.

For the first time all evening—and likely all weekend—Roy Williams was alone.

Less than 30 minutes earlier, thanks to the Tar Heels' 71-65 victory over Gonzaga in the NCAA title game, Williams had become just the sixth coach in history to win at least three national championships.

Any attempt to reflect on the accomplishment vanished, however, when Williams' silent postgame stroll was interrupted by North Carolina guard Theo Pinson, who issued a warning to his coach as he sprinted past him in the concourse.

"You're about to get soaked!" Pinson screamed.

Halting his stride, Williams shook his head and chuckled.

"Oh boy," he said to a security guard standing nearby. "This ought to be fun."

Williams wasn't being sarcastic.

Just as they were antsy to empty water bottles onto their coach's head and tousle his silver hair, Williams was eager to dance and scream and celebrate, too. All of his championship teams hold a special place in his heart.

But winning the title with this squad, family members and confidants said, may be the most satisfying conquest of them all.

Not just for Williams, but for the entire UNC program.

"It's gratifying," assistant coach C.B. McGrath said, "because it makes people eat their words."

Indeed, even with Williams' track record of success—his .791 career winning percentage is second among active coaches—North Carolina's brand hasn't created as much buzz in recent years as college basketball's other blue bloods.

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 03: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels goes up for a dunk late in the second half against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium on April
Pool/Getty Images

While schools such as Kentucky (De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk), Duke (Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum), UCLA (Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf) and Kansas (Josh Jackson) are winning with one-and-done freshmen, the Tar Heels have just one potential lottery pick on their roster in Justin Jackson.

And he's a junior.

"I like when people say we can't do it, that we don't have enough talent, that our recruiting classes aren't good enough … and here we are winning a national championship," McGrath said.

"That's just what fans like to talk about. During the offseason, people talk about recruiting. Whoever ranks those kids never has to coach them, never has to put a team together. You can rank whatever you want, you've still got to coach guys and get them to buy into team basketball to make your program successful."

The fact that North Carolina was the blue blood that made the Final Four—and not Kentucky, Duke, UCLA or Kansasbrings a sense of fulfillment to Williams, who has coached just two one-and-done players in his entire career (Brandan Wright and Marvin Williams).

"It's not like he's trying to do it this way," Williams' oldest son, Scott, said after Monday's game. "If Dad could sign another Brandan Wright, he'd do it in a heartbeat. If he could have some of these other [one-and-done] recruits, he'd take them.

"But I also think it's great for college basketball when you have this kind of diversity. Coach K [Duke's Mike Krzyzewski] and Coach Cal [Kentucky's John Calipari] are winning with young kids. We just won it with a senior- and junior-dominated team. Neither way is wrong, but I think building a team from the ground up gives Dad a greater sense of accomplishment."

Especially the past few years.

North Carolina—which became one of just nine teams in history to appear in back-to-back title games—has been mired in an academic scandal that won't go away. With the NCAA's investigative process continuing to drag, recruiters from other schools are telling prospects to steer clear of the Tar Heels program because of the sanctions that could be coming.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Some of them—particularly Brandon Ingram, who spent one season at Duke after admitting his interest in North Carolina waned because of the investigation—are listening.

"It's been harder to recruit," Roy Williams said Monday. "We've lost about everybody that we tried because the sensationalism of the newspapers. I had to start defending myself four years ago. I used to say that I hoped that it was over with before I retired. Now I'm saying I hope it's over with before I die."

Tar Heels players said the academic scandal is among a handful of examples of adversity they've faced throughout their careers that ultimately made them stronger. The death of legendary coach Dean Smith caused them to play with more pride, they said. And seeing Williams endure the loss of close friend, and well-liked Chapel Hill businessman, Ted Seagroves—not to mention the pain he's experienced with his knee issues—helped them form a tighter bond with their coach.

"We've been through a lot," Jackson said. "It feels good to say we came out on top and weathered that type of storm. With these guys, it's a testament to how hard we work and to what type of team we are."

Dominant as it was at times this season, North Carolina's march to the 2017 title game was different than the one it embarked on last year, when Villanova's Kris Jenkins crushed the Tar Heels' hearts with a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

This season Williams' squad barely squeaked by No. 8 seed Arkansas in the round of 32 and needed a game-winner at the buzzer from former walk-on Luke Maye to get past Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

North Carolina's offense went stagnant in Saturday's semifinal against Oregon, when a pair of timely offensive rebounds kept the Ducks from getting a chance at game-tying final shot.

In Monday's championship game, North Carolina went just four of 27 from three-point range, shot 35.6 percent from the field and only 57.7 percent (15-of-26) from the foul stripe.

The Tar Heels said Gonzaga's defense was one of the biggest reasons for their struggles.

"From top to bottom," Jackson said, "that's one of the best teams I've ever played in my college career."

In the end, though, it was the players who have been in the program the longest—the guys Williams has nurtured and developed—who came through when it mattered most.

Despite missing 14 of his first 15 shots from the field in the final two rounds, forward Isaiah Hicks had the confidence to attempt a hanging, one-handed shot in the lane that banked in with 26 seconds left to give the Tar Heels a 68-65 lead Monday.

Matt York/Associated Press

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who had scored his team's last eight points, freelanced on the Zags' next possession and, when he couldn't penetrate, attempted a fall-away shot a few feet inside the three-point arc that senior Kennedy Meeks blocked. The loose ball ended up in the hands of junior Joel Berry II, who pitched it ahead to Jackson for the game-sealing dunk to make it 70-65 at the 11-second mark.

Williams called timeout with seven seconds left to let his team gain its composure. Asked to describe the mood in the huddle, Pinson smiled.

"Waterworks," he said. "Everyone was so emotional. After all we'd been through, we just couldn't believe it was actually happening. We couldn't believe we were about to win the title."

North Carolina ended the game on an 8-0 run.

Within minutes, blue and white confetti danced in the air and rained down onto North Carolina's players as they conducted interviews and cut down the University of Phoenix Stadium nets. Eventually, players and coaches made their way onto a makeshift, wooden stage to accept their championship trophy from NCAA President Mark Emmert, who was booed heavily.

Moments later, Williams put his arms on the shoulders of his grandsons—Aiden is seven; Court is five—as highlights of the NCAA tournament played during the "One Shining Moment" video that has become a staple of every basketball postseason.

Scott said the grandchildren have brought some "levity" to his dad's life. But his players have, too.

"The kids he's had in his program the last two years have kept him young amid so many tough times," Scott said.

"That's been absolutely the biggest thing that's powered him through."

Scott said he and his mother, Wanda, have been trying for years to convince Williams to retire. He doesn't see it happening anytime soon.

"It'd be hard to get him to leave after doing something like this," his son said of the championship. "He's having too much fun."

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 03: Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels cuts down the net after defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 3, 2017 in G
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

That was evident on Williams' face as he removed his jacket late Monday night—moments after Pinson warmed him of the upcoming water barrage. As the Tar Heels filed into the locker room, Williams waited outside for his assistants.

"C'mon guys," he said. "I'm not going to go in there by myself."

Once McGrath and Brad Frederick and Steve Robinson were there to join him, Williams and his staff walked into the locker room and, to use Pinson's words, got soaked. Williams emerged five minutes later and headed to his press conference with his white shirt clinging to his body like a wet paper towel, a smile across his face.

"At the end," Williams said, "when you're watching your kids jump around with excitement, there's no better feeling as a coach."

Especially when those "kids" are 21 and 22.

And not 18.


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