North Carolina got their NCAA Championship ticket validated with a 71-65 win over Gonzaga to avenge their heartbreaking buzzer beater loss to Villanova last season.
The two number one seeds played a sloppy 40 minutes of turnovers and missed opportunities in the paint, but this time the Tar Heels, under the resilience of the ankle injured Joe Berry, would not be denied.
Down 35-32 going into the half, Carolina came out of the locker room with an 8-0 run, turning the tables on the slow pace of Gonzaga’s transition defense that limited them to two fast break points in the first half.
In their first national title game, Gonzaga haunted the Tar Heels early on with precision 3 point shooting. Point guard Josh Perkins finally found his groove with 13 first half points, then unfortunately, lost his mojo for the remainder of the game.
And despite out rebounding the best defensive team in the country 24-23, coach Mark Few had many reasons to be disappointed. His big guns shot blanks around the rim, specifically the scraggly bearded 7-foot center Przemek Karnowski, whose signature banks against the glass were AWOL – a possible casualty of being poked in the eye during the semi finals against South Carolina.
Karnowski’s 7-foot teammate Zach Collins could have been a contender but foul trouble kept him on the bench, and his fifth one with 5 minutes left on the clock took him off the court.
Zags Nigel Williams–Goss had the heart of a warrior and a team high 15-points. But down the stretch, he too succumbed to ankle woes, and while hobbling to make history, he missed a key jumper that would’ve given Gonzaga the lead.
Carolina senior Kennedy Meeks, mired in foul trouble with everyone else, had a quiet 7 points after a career high 25 on Saturday, yet he found a way to make his mark in the final minute with a rebound, a monster block and a steal that put the game out of the Bulldogs reach.
Berry led all scorers with 22 points – carrying the Tar Heels to their 6th NCAA title, the third for coach Roy Williams. And they did it on a night when their star player Justin Jackson was 0-9 from downtown.
The once Cinderella team from Spokane gave a very prominent Tar Heels program a run for their money. It seems strange to say it wasn’t Gonzaga’s destiny to win, but given the pain and suffering North Carolina endured last season, even a Jesuit may agree.