GLENDALE, ARIZ. – Mark Few and Roy Williams were on the opposite ends of the coaching spectrum when it came to Final Four experience.
The same goes for their programs. But Gonzaga and North Carolina weren’t that much different when it came down to talent and depth. They took the court in Monday night’s NCAA men’s basketball championship as almost mirror images of each other.
It didn’t matter that the Tar Heels were national runners-up last season. It didn’t matter that the Zags had never been to the national semifinals, let alone the title game.
The new blood was every bit as good as the blue blood on the biggest stage, but experience mattered in the final minute.
Gonzaga led by a basket with less than two minutes left, but North Carolina responded with eight consecutive points to secure the program’s first national championship since 2009 with a 71-65 victory over the Zags at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Tar Heels missed four free throws in the last five seconds of Saturday’s national semifinal victory against Oregon but escaped with clutch offensive rebounds. They never gave Oregon or Gonzaga an opportunity to beat them on a last-second shot as Villanova did with Kris Jenkins’ three-pointer in last year’s NCAA title game.
“They wanted redemption,” said Williams, who passed UNC legend Dean Smith with his third national title. “I put it in the locker room up on the board. One of the things we had to be [Monday] was tough enough. I think this group was tough enough.”
Kennedy Meeks was the hero with an offensive rebound to beat Oregon. The 6-10 senior’s block on Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss and his steal with nine seconds left sealed the sixth title for North Carolina (33-7).
Following Meeks’ block, Justin Jackson raced up the court to finish an outlet pass with a two-handed dunk for the exclamation point with 11 seconds left. Following a steal, Joel Berry II hit one of two free throws for the final margin.
Berry, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 22 points and six assists and Jackson added 16 points. Isaiah Hicks and Meeks combined for 20 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks.
“I wanted to see this confetti fall on us and we’re the winners,” Berry said. “We came out here and we competed. It came down to the last second, but we’re national champs now.”
The sting of the last-second defeat in the 2016 championship motivated North Carolina, which had 10 players return from that team. But Gonzaga (37-2) was 20 minutes away from winning it all, leading 35-32 at halftime. The midmajor from the West Coast Conference still clung to a 65-63 lead with l:55 to play.
“We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn’t break,” Gonzaga junior forward Johnathan Williams said.
But the Bulldogs couldn’t hold on. They edged out the top rebounding team in the nation 49-46 on the boards, but they had 14 turnovers. Williams-Goss was one of only two starters in double figures with 15 points on 5-for-17 shooting. Josh Perkins had all of his 13 points in the first half.
One of the most anticipated matchups was at center with Gonzaga’s 7-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski vs. Meeks, who had 25 points and 14 rebounds against Oregon. But Karnowski had nine points on 1-for-8 shooting and four turnovers. Zach Collins, who fouled out with five minutes left, had nine points and four turnovers for the Zags.
One of the concerns for North Carolina entering the night was the injured ankles that bothered Berry for the past few games. But the 6-0 junior point guard had his highest-scoring game since his 26 points against Butler in the Sweet 16. He played 37 minutes.
“My teammates believed in me,” Berry said. “My teammates said just keep on pushing.
“I couldn’t do it without them. I wasn’t 100 percent, but I gave it my all.”
The last two times programs with at least five national titles faced teams with zero championships in the final game was when Florida defeated UCLA in 2006 and Maryland beat Indiana in 2002. Both times the team with no titles came away victorious.
Not this time.
“It was a slugfest,” Few said. “It was two teams that desperately wanted to be crowned national champion.
“And I think to be so close for us is temporarily a crushing blow.”