CHAMPS: Heels get redemption in slugfest

FJQFXGCNNXRTSBQ.20170404055818A year after getting a kick in the gut in the final second of the NCAA Tournament title game, North Carolina got redemption with a tough slugfest victory over Gonzaga to give the Tar Heels their sixth national championship, 71-65.

As has been the trend this season, the Tar Heels found a way to win and was able to close out the game.

Down 65-63 with less than two minutes to play, Carolina indeed closed out the game with an 8-0 run.

Justin Jackson, who had missed all nine of his three-point attempts, came up with an old-fashioned three-point play inside with 1:40 left to give the Tar Heels a 66-65 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss, who had scored 15 points, missed a jumper. Theo Pinson got the rebound for Carolina. The Tar Heels burned clock but couldn’t score. Kennedy Meeks was able to get a tie up, giving the possession back to the Heels with 49 seconds left.

The Heels burned the clock and Isaiah Hicks drove the lane to bang one in at the end of the shot clock, giving Carolina a 68-65 advantage.

Williams-Goss drove in the lane but Meeks came up with a block. Joel Berry recovered the ball and threw ahead to Jackson for a dunk to all but wrap it up at 70-65 with seconds remaining.

Meeks stole a desperation pass and Berry was fouled. After a timeout to re-gain his composure, he hit one of two free throws before the celebration began.

“Forget my shooting – we’re national champions!,” said Jackson, who did manage to score 16 points.

But it was Berry, still not 100 percent after two turned ankles, who led way with 22 points on his way to the Most Outstanding Player award of the Final Four.

“It’s been a hard road,” Berry said. “Now we can forget about last year.”

Senior Nate Britt said the team talked about this day and this feeling for quite some time. “We set a goal and we achieved our dream to get back and make it happen,” he said.

UNC coach Roy Williams said there is no better feeling for a coach than to see his “kids jump around” after a national championship win. Still, he said it didn’t take away the pain of last year because Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James didn’t get to experience the feeling.

It was a frustrating feeling for much of the game as the officials called 44 fouls, including 11 in the first four-plus minutes of the second half. Neither team could get any flow on the offense.

As poorly as Carolina shot, less than 36 percent, the Heels held Gonzaga to 34 percent shooting. It was the first time this year that a team shot better than Gonzaga, which finishes the season 37-2.

“Neither team played very well but both teams played really hard,” Coach Williams said. He did praise his team’s second half defense after giving the Zags too many open threes in the first half when Gonzaga took at 35-32 lead at the break.

He admittedly blessed his team out at the half and reminded them that the Heels led by five at the half in last year’s finals and Villanova came out hungrier and wound up winning.

This year, Carolina scored the first eight points of the second half, highlighted by four points and an assist by Berry.

But Gonzaga came back to take a 43-40 lead, and the lead went back and forth setting up a hectic and emotional last few minutes. There were 12 lead changes and 11 ties during the game.

With Carolina holding a 59-57 lead and less than five minutes remaining, the Tar Heels seemingly got the ball back with a lead. But officials, incorrectly, ruled that a Williams-Goss three-point shot went off Pinson’s hand out of bounds. After giving the ball back to Gonzaga, Williams-Goss knocked in a three, giving the Zags a 60-59 lead with 4:30 left.

Seconds later, Berry drained a three to give the lead back to Carolina at 62-60.

Another Williams-Goss bucket put Gonzaga up 65-63 with 1:50 left, setting up Carolina’s 8-0 run that gave the Heels the title.

“Isaiah knocked in a big shot and Kennedy got a big block,” said Berry, who said he almost started to cry after he threw it to Jackson for the game-clinching dunk.

Hicks, who scored 13, said that the feeling was 180 degrees different from last year. “What we worked for was finally here. It’s surreal,” he said.

Carolina finishes the season of redemption at 33-7. There will be a celebration at the Smith Center at about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

For more on the game – including a box score, video highlights and additional commentary – please click here.