Redemption: North Carolina wins national championship in thriller over Gonzaga

Redemption: North Carolina wins national championship in thriller over Gonzaga


GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's OK, Carolina, you can open your eyes.

An unwatchable game turned into a beautiful night for the Tar Heels, who turned a free-throw contest into a championship they've been waiting an entire year to celebrate.

Justin Jackson delivered the go-ahead 3-point play with 1:40 left Monday and North Carolina pulled away for a 71-65 win over Gonzaga that washed away a year's worth of heartache.

It was, in North Carolina's words, a redemption tour -- filled with extra time on the practice court and the weight room, all fueled by a devastating loss in last year's title game on Kris Jenkins' 3-point dagger at the buzzer for Villanova.

"Just unreal that we get a second chance at this," junior Theo Pinson said, recounting a pre-game conversation with teammate Joel Berry II. "Not a lot of people can say they can do that. I told him, `We're about to take this thing. I'm about to give everything I got.' I knew he would, too, we just didn't want to come up short again."

But to say everything went right for Roy Williams' team at this Final Four would be less than the truth.

The Tar Heels (33-7) followed a terrible-shooting night in the semifinal with an equally ice-cold performance in the final -- going 4 for 27 from 3-point land and 26 for 73 overall.

Gonzaga, helped by 8 straight points from Nigel Williams-Goss, took a 2-point lead with 1:52 left, but the next possession was the game-changer.

Jackson took a zinger of a pass under the basket from Pinson and converted the shot, then the ensuing free throw to take the lead for good. Moments later, Williams-Goss twisted an ankle and could not elevate for a jumper that would've given the Bulldogs the lead.

Isaiah Hicks made a basket to push the lead to 3, then Kennedy Meeks, in foul trouble all night (who wasn't?), blocked Williams-Goss' shot and Jackson got a slam on the other end to put some icing on title No. 6 for the Tar Heels.

Williams got his third championship, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp.

"I think of Coach Smith, there's no question," Williams said. "I don't think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him. But we got three because I've got these guys with me and that's all I care about right now -- my guys."

Berry recovered from ankle injuries to lead the Tar Heels, but needed 19 shots for his 22 points. Jackson had 16 but went 0 for 9 from 3. Overall, the Tar Heels actually shot a percentage point worse than they did in Saturday night's win over Oregon.

Thank goodness for free throws.

They went 15 for 26 from the line and, in many corners, this game will be remembered for these three men: Michael Stephens, Verne Harris and Mike Eades, the referees who called 27 fouls in the second half, completely busted up the flow of the game and sent Meeks, Gonzaga's 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, and a host of others to the bench in foul trouble.

The game "featured" 52 free throws. Both teams were in the bonus with 13 minutes left. Somehow, Collins was the only player to foul out.

Most bizarre sequence: With 8:02 left, Berry got called for a foul for (maybe) making contact with Karnowski and stripping the ball from the big man's hands. But as Karnowski was flailing after the ball, he inadvertently grabbed Berry around the neck. After a long delay, the refs called Karnowski for a flagrant foul of his own.

"I'm not going to talk about refs," Karnowski said. "It was just a physical game."

Zags coach Mark Few handled it with class, calling the refs "three of the best officials in the entire country," and insisting they did a fine job.

He might have wanted further review on the scrum with 50 seconds left. The refs were taking heat on social media for calling a held ball, which gave possession to the Tar Heels, on a pile-up underneath the Carolina basket. It set up the Hicks layup to put Carolina ahead by 3. One problem: Meeks' right hand looks to be very much touching out of bounds while he's trying to rip away the ball.

"That was probably on me," Few said. "From my angle, it didn't look like an out of bounds situation or I would have called a review. That's tough to hear."

The Bulldogs (37-2), the Cinderella-turned-Godzilla team from the small school in the West Coast Conference, tried to keep the big picture in mind. Twenty years ago, this sort of run at that sort of place looked virtually impossible. With less than 2 minutes left, they had the lead in the national title game.

"We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn't break," junior forward Johnathan Williams said.

And North Carolina got over a hump that, at times this season, felt like a mountain.

"They wanted redemption," Williams said. "I put it on the locker room up on the board -- one of the things we had to be tonight was tough enough. I think this group was tough enough tonight."

Final Four: North Carolina survives Oregon; Gonzaga holds off South Carolina

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Final Four: North Carolina survives Oregon; Gonzaga holds off South Carolina

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- North Carolina missed the shots. No surprise there.

Kennedy Meeks saved the game. No surprise there, either.

Meeks, the only Tar Heel who could shoot straight Saturday night, grabbed the game-saving offensive rebound in a 77-76 victory over Oregon after the ice-cold Tar Heels missed their fourth straight free throw down the stretch.

All part of a career night for the North Carolina senior, who was on the bench last year when Villanova devastatingly ended the Tar Heels' chance at a title with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

In this one, Meeks finished 11 for 13 for 25 points and 14 rebounds, none more important than the last one.

The rest of his team: 14 for 55 from the floor. Justin Jackson was one of the few to break through. He had 22 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

"If it wasn't for Kennedy Meeks, we wouldn't have been in the basketball game," Carolina coach Roy Williams said.

In some ways, losing this one might have felt every bit as bad as the Villanova loss last year for this, a team on a mission with only one acceptable destination (see full recap).

Gonzaga holds off South Carolina to reach national title game
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points, Gonzaga's big men combined for 27 and the Bulldogs used some last-second strategy for a 77-73 victory over South Carolina on Saturday in a matchup of first-time teams at the Final Four.

The Bulldogs' 7-footers, senior Przemek Karnowski and freshman Zach Collins, took care of things on both ends of the court as they combined for 18 rebounds. Collins also had six blocks.

Gonzaga (37-1) will face the winner between North Carolina and Oregon for the national championship on Monday night.

Williams-Goss missed a shot with 12.7 seconds left and South Carolina rebounded and called a timeout trailing 75-72. South Carolina passed the ball around and Gonzaga fouled Sindarius Thornwell with 3.5 seconds left. He made the first and missed the second on purpose. Killian Tillie rebounded for Gonzaga, was fouled and made two free throws with 2.2 seconds left to cement the game.

Williams-Goss, a second-team All-American, led the Bulldogs to a 14-point lead in the second half but it disappeared quickly as the Gamecocks (26-11) went on a 14-point run to grab a 67-65 lead with 7:06 to play.

Collins and Karnowksi then accounted for the next 7 points, including a 3-pointer by Collins and a thundering dunk by Karnowski.

Still, South Carolina wasn't done. The seventh-seeded Gamecocks scored 5 straight to get within 74-72 with just over 2 minutes left (see full recap).

Reflecting on the Christian Laettner, Kris Jenkins shots after witnessing them firsthand

Reflecting on the Christian Laettner, Kris Jenkins shots after witnessing them firsthand

It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since Christian Laettner launched what was at the time the most famous shot in college basketball history. I was at the Spectrum on March 28, 1992, with my parents to watch Kentucky play Duke in the East Region final. I was 10 years old and a huge fan of Bobby Hurley, Duke's All-American junior point guard that year. I wanted to see Hurley and Duke win that night to advance to the Final Four and defend its national championship. It's important to note here I've never been a Duke fan, I was just a big Hurley fan. Growing up playing basketball it was very easy for me to identify with the scrappy, undersized point guard from Jersey City.

My parents and I were sitting behind the basket on the opposite end of the floor from where Laettner hit his shot. My mom was the women's basketball coach at West Chester University and used her connections with the women's coach at the University of Pennsylvania to get us three tickets to the game. Needless to say, I was pumped. It was the first time I had seen Hurley play in person and it was an Elite Eight game on top of it.

I honestly didn't think the game would be as close as it was. I thought Duke would win somewhat easily. Obviously, that wasn't the case. I remember growing more and more anxious the longer Kentucky hung around. Once the game went to overtime, all bets were off. It was anyone's game and I was just hoping my guy could make enough plays for his team to win.

(Sidenote: Hurley was awesome that game. Of course, all anyone remembers is Laettner's shot and the fact he was a perfect 10 for 10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the foul line. But Hurley had 22 points and 10 assists and was the only player to play all 45 minutes of the game.)

Sean Woods hit the shot to give Kentucky a 103-102 lead with 2.1 seconds left in overtime right in front of us. I was bummed but remember thinking there was still time left for Duke to win the game. As soon as Duke broke its timeout huddle, I looked for Laettner, who was standing near the baseline in front of the Duke bench. I figured Duke would go to him in that spot and of course it did. The rest is history and I'll forever be grateful to have witnessed it firsthand.

At the time, I didn't think much of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino not putting a man on the inbounder, Duke's Grant Hill. That decision has been second-guessed over the years and rightfully so. It allowed Hill to have a clean line of vision and make an unobstructed pass to a flashing Laettner at the opposite foul line.

In an ironic twist, I was also there for the shot that unseated Laettner's as the most iconic in college basketball history. Fast-forward 24 years to last April 4, 2016, in Houston and Villanova's Kris Jenkins hitting a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat North Carolina, 77-74, in the National Championship Game. I grew up a big Villanova fan, as did my dad before me. His dad went to Villanova and the whole family has pulled for Villanova ever since.

We didn't plan to go to the Final Four that year but once Villanova beat Kansas in the Elite Eight, we made the split-second decision to fly to Houston the following weekend. It turned out to be one of the better decisions we ever made. My wife, Amy Fadool, got us game tickets for the national semifinals as well as a flight to Houston -- I'll never be able to repay her for that. I'd say thanks again to her here, but she's a University of Kentucky graduate and undoubtedly won't read anything having to do with Laettner's shot in 1992.

In yet another ironic twist, the opposing coach's decision to not guard the inbounds pass played a big role in Jenkins' getting a clean look in the 2016 title game. Roy Williams chose not to put a man on Jenkins, allowing him to saunter up the floor next to Ryan Arcidiacono and eventually get a clean catch-and-release from 25 feet.

I often wonder how many people other than my dad and I were there for both the Laettner shot in 1992 and the Jenkins shot in 2016. Surely a number of media members were at both games. Even though I work in the media now, I wasn't at either game in a working capacity. I was simply a fan who lucked out twice and ended up seeing the two most significant shots in the history of the NCAA Tournament.