GLENDALE, Ariz. — When the gnarled yearlong trail of North Carolina finally curled to its prettiest peak, it figured the last steps would brim with bricks, briars and clutter. It figured this latest national championship would rise out of a mucky stew of clanging shots and tweeting fouls such as this 71-65 over fellow giant Gonzaga.
It figured that when Coach Roy Williams would raise his fists with a giant grin and a third national title, and the Tar Heel aristocracy would have its sixth, the stat sheet would teem with groans. Of course, it would have North Carolina’s 4-for-27 three-point shots. Sure, it would include 11 missed free throws out of 26. Why not include the foul trouble and other trouble that inconvenienced big man Kennedy Meeks? That just fit with the tapestry.
While savoring this ugly-duckling title, and their 8-0 run over the last 100 seconds that swiped it, the Tar Heels will know they lived up to Williams’s initial postgame comments when he stepped out of the mess of the game into the mess of the confetti and said, “I think this group was tough enough tonight.”
Could a most outstanding player really have a 2-for-14 semifinal and a 9-for-33 Final Four? Why, surely he could, and he’s Joel Berry II who, true to the trail, tried to forget his aching ankles, followed his coach’s advice to use his legs and cobbled together 22 points to become — good grief — the first player since Bill Walton in 1973 to score at least 20 in back-to-back national title games. “Some of them were short,” he said accurately, “but the ones that we needed went in.” His nearby teammates guffawed.
The whole trail had been riddled with harrowing views and hairpin escapes. It began 364 nights prior with the Villanovan nightmare in Houston. It rang with snarls from Duke (in the ACC tournament semifinals), from Arkansas (which led by five with 3:30 left in the second round) and from Kentucky (which led by five with five minutes left in the South Region final). It included the bizarre and sputtering pause with the four missed free throws in the last six seconds against Oregon in the national semifinal. And it all happened with an academic scandal still unresolved and howling from the woods.
So when they all got to this tug-of-rope with Gonzaga, with its 44 fouls (22 each) and its 95 rebounds (49 by Gonzaga) and its 86 missed shots (out of 132), the Tar Heels (33-7) must have felt at home in the hindrances. They probably reveled when Williams said, “At the half, I was really mad.” They probably agreed when Williams cited Gonzaga as “significantly better than us in several categories.” When Gonzaga’s impossibly confident floor leader Nigel Williams-Goss made an emphatic pull-up bank shot from the left with 1:53 left for a 65-63 lead, maybe the Tar Heels even loved it.
Thereafter came a burst of plays that made Gonzaga the unhappiest 37-2 team extant, including one from — you guessed it — a dead-cold player who had spent the semifinal against Oregon in a 1-for-12 bonanza of wretchedness. Theo Pinson got an assist with 1:40 left, and Justin Jackson made a layup and three-point play off that as part of his clunky 6-for-19 night. Williams-Goss front-rimmed a shot with 1:19 left. Back at the North Carolina end, there was a — what else? — scrap for an offensive rebound during which Meeks’s hand appeared to be out of bounds but nobody noticed.
With the possession arrow blinking Carolina blue, the Heels trusted their largest possession to, wait, Isaiah Hicks, who moved like some hot player along the right side of the lane, hovered in the air and banked in a confident shot for a 68-65 lead with 26 seconds left. “I felt like I was always trying,” Hicks said, “and when you try, eventually good things will happen.”
Guess so. Three weeks and 68 teams had distilled to this final snippet, with the possibility of a Gonzaga three-point shot perhaps ringing in Carolinian heads. It never came to that. After Williams-Goss had struggled with his legs a minute earlier and seemingly recovered, he went venturing into the lane, as he had so often and so confidently through the Zags’ nearly spotless season. The 6-foot-10, 265-pound Meeks, who had rescued North Carolina from its trouble against Oregon with 25 points and 14 rebounds, but who had seven points and 10 rebounds and missed three of four free throws in the final, maintained his capacity to wreak a major play. He rejected the last shot of Williams-Goss’s magnificent season, and the Tar Heels sent Jackson off toward a happy, lonely jam with 11.4 seconds left for a 70-65 lead.
Soon, Meeks had a steal also, and seven seconds remained, and Williams-Goss stood in the corner with his face in his jersey, the tears beginning after a 5-for-17 night where he still crammed in nine rebounds and six assists. Tears would continue at the interview dais when they forced him to stammer through, “We did a lot of things people didn’t expect us to do this year.” They continued as he left and Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said, “I’ve just been with him for the last 10 minutes trying to console him. He’s just such a ferocious competitor and such a winner that he doesn’t know how to process losing because it doesn’t happen very often.”
At that moment at seven seconds, though, came tears of another kind. “Pretty much everybody on the floor was tearing up,” Pinson said. The trail had been maddeningly inconvenient, yet the Tar Heels had clambered through all of it.