Late spurt clinches national title for North Carolina

The North Carolina basketball team takes a selfie after their 71-65 win over Gonzaga during the NCAA Basketball Championship Game Monday, Apr. 3 2017 University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. (Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia)

Richard Smith
Independent Newsmedia

The 2017 NCAA championship game was set up as a parade to the foul line, with both teams in the double bonus and shots clanging off the rim from all angles.

However, a basketball game broke out in the final five minutes Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. And North Carolina dominated the last two minutes, scoring the final eight points of the game and making two huge defensive stops for a 71-65 victory.

Almost invisible for the Tar Heels in Saturday night’s semifinal squeaker against Oregon, junior guard Joel Berry II and senior forward Isaiah Hicks made crucial plays late to avoid a repeat of last year’s last-second title loss.

“Everybody still had faith in me. Everybody was always encouraging me,” Hicks said. “I felt like I was always trying. I feel like, when you try good things are eventually going to happen. That’s all I was doing.”

Berry led all scorers with 22 points, and his four three-point baskets were the Tar Heels only makes in 27 attempts. Hicks finished with 13 points and nine rebounds and made a leaning layup with 26 seconds left to extend the Tar Heels’ lead to 68-65.

Berry picked up senior Kennedy Meeks’ block of junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss with seconds remaining and found junior wing Justin Jackson streaking down the court for a two-handed dunk. Meeks quickly picked up a steal and North Carolina (33-7) could celebrate its sixth national title in earnest.

“When Kennedy blocked that shot and I grabbed the ball and threw it to Justin, I immediately almost started crying,” Berry II said. “And I went up to coach and hugged him. I told him I’m about to cry. And he told me just go out there and knock your free throws in.”

Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie (#33) attempts a shot against North Carolina during the NCAA Basketball Championship Game Monday, Apr. 3 2017 University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. (Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia)

Gonzaga (37-2) appeared primed to cut the nets until the closing stretch, particularly when junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss posted up and hit a turnaround bank shot with 1:51 remaining. It would be the first-time finalist’s last basket.

Williams-Goss scored the final eight Gonzaga points during a three-minute span, matching a North Carolina offense that suddenly came alive in transition. Both teams seemed to break off the shackles in those final five minutes, after most of the game was played at a crawl.

“I don’t know what Mark said, but it was an ugly game. I don’t think either team played exceptionally well offensively. The second half, they shoot 27 percent and we shoot 35 for the game,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “So I don’t think either team got in a real good flow. The fouls were a part of it. … I think it was the magnitude of the game that had a lot to do with it and the defense on both end, by both teams.”

Gonzaga freshman center Zach Collins fouled out at the 5:03 mark with North Carolina leading 58-57. Freshman Tony Bradley hit one free throw, but WIlliam-Goss’ three regained the lead.

Berry answered with his own trey. Williams-Goss scored to regain the lead, then Jackson tied the game with a free throw. After the final Gonzaga basket, Jackson curled inside and took junior Theo Pinson’s feed for a layup and foul.

His free throw put the Tar Heels back in front for good. Williams-Goss turned his ankle with 1:25 left and returned following a Gonzaga time out, but could not get much lift on his next shot.

“(I) sprained it pretty good. It was the same ankle that I hurt last game so it was still a little bit weak. But my adrenaline was rushing. Like I said last game, nothing was going to stop me from finishing the game,” Williams-Goss said.

Prior to the closing stretch the story of the second half was fouls – lots of them. North Carolina committed its 10th foul before the half was 10 minutes old, and both teams were in the penalty for the final 13 minutes of the game.

Both teams came in noted for their big men and both teams’ inside games suffered from the bevy of fouls. Besides Collins, Gonzaga’s starting front court of Pzemek Karnowski had four each, as did Hicks and Meeks.

Neither teamed gained an advantage at the charity stripe. Gonzaga finished 17-26, while North Carolina went 15-26.

“These were three of the best officials in the entire country. I mean, these are two heavyweight teams going at it inside, playing really, really physical basketball. I had no issue whatsoever. It;’s not an easy game to ref,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We were negotiating massive foul issues, ones we haven’t had all year. I think we navigates ourselves really, really well to get that thing down, take a lead with a minute or so to go. And we just didn’t finish.”

North Carolina’s Theo Pinson (#1) attempts a layup against Gonzaga during the NCAA Basketball Championship Game Monday, Apr. 3 2017 University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. (Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia)

Sophomore guard Josh Perkins provided the Bulldogs with an unexpected boost in an equally disjointed first half. Entering the game as Gonzaga’s sixth leading scorer, he poured in 13 points in the first 16 minutes. Perkins went 0-3 in the second half, however.

Perkins’ three with 4:08 until halftime gave his team its largest lead at 28-21. Berry II was fouled for the second time on a trey at the 2:03 mark and made all three foul shots to cut the Bulldogs lead to 30-28.

Neither team shot well, with Gonzaga at 40 percent and North Carolina at 31. The Bulldogs’ five three-point baskets were the difference at halftime.

In the 18 years since its 1999 Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, the Gonzaga program has established itself as the most consistently successful team in the country operating outside of the power conferences. The Bulldogs have reached every NCAA tournament since, and Few coached all of those teams.

Still, the Bulldogs never broke through to the biggest stage in basketball until this season. And it seemed as though most of the people that built Gonzaga basketball to this point made their way to Phoenix.

“It’s been such a moving experience. I never, ever would have imagined it to be emotionally moved on numerous occasions,” Coach Few said. “I mean Domantas (Sabonis) and Kelly Olynyk showed up today. They’ve got 18 hours to be here. My college roommate from Eugene, Kory Tarpenning, flew over from Monte Carlo Friday night. We probably had over 100 former players here. I had all my coaching buddies that I owe everything to here.”

Conversely, the Tar Heels earned redemption from the 77-74 loss to Villanova last year. In his 100th NCAA tournament game, Coach Williams claimed his third national title at his alma mater – following wins in 2005 and 2009.

While he said all three are sweet, Williams admitted the painful end to 2016 made this championship a bit more special.

“I’d say this one is more special because it’s been a journey of the last three or four years, trying to do something. The tough thing is  it doesn’t make (2016 seniors) Marcus (Page), Brice (Johnson) and Joel (James) feel any better. As I said yesterday, the feeling of inadequacy in the locker room last year is the worst feeling I’ve ever had,” Coach Williams said. “”But this one’s fantastic. And it’s sweet.”

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