By RYAN BRAUCH
In an emotional two weeks of buzzer beaters, upsets and tears, the National Title game hung in the balance as the score of two elite No. 1 seeds were separated by only a point. Equally driven, but with different motivations. The Gonzaga Bulldogs and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels met in Glendale Arizona to face off in an intense game that would determine the fate of each program’s history.
This matchup proved to be an interesting one, as both the Tar Heels and the Bulldogs are teams that predominantly operate in the paint. Seeing elite and NBA ready big men like Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks of UNC and Przemek Karnowski of Gonzaga square up under the basket excited the crowd to no end. As the two teams laced up to play the final game of the season, Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his squad had their eyes on bringing Gonzaga their first title in school history, while Roy Williams and the Heels aimed to avenge their devastating loss last year.
From the moment the game started, the two teams were neck and neck while the crowd eagerly cheered for each team. Each team traded blows at the beginning as the game started off slow. Once the teams started to heat up, Gonzaga quickly jumped to a 21-14 lead with 10:13 left in the first half. The Zags gained this lead atop the hot outside shooting of guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins.
Facing a seven-point deficit early, UNC erased the lead with a big three-pointer from junior guard Joel Berry III, along with a pair of baskets from forward Justin Jackson. Despite the Tar Heels’ effort to get back in the game, the Bulldogs quickly formed another lead, capitalizing on Carolina’s turnovers. Although the Zags played a smart brand of basketball over the course of the first half, they only entered halftime with a five-point lead as they lead they Tar Heels 35-30.
Gonzaga started the second half with a turnover by Josh Perkins, this would then create momentum for UNC to go on a run that would propel them to a 40-35 lead. Zach Collins, the Bulldogs’ forward, kept the Zags in the game with one jumper. Shortly after Collins’ shot, the lead changed again as guard Jordan Mathews put Gonzaga on top with a three. Over the next eight minutes the lead was changed or tied 11 times. Heading into the final six minutes of play, UNC led by two, holding onto a 56-54 lead.
In the midst of a ferocious battle on the boards between Hicks and Meeks against Collins and Karnowski, Collins fouled out with 5:03 left in the game. The ejection of Collins was a major hit to Gonzaga, as the forward was thriving under the intense late-game pressure. The freshman was putting in work for the Bulldogs in the second half, particularly on the defensive end. As Carolina attempted to pull away, junior transfer Nigel Williams-Goss kept the Zags in the game in just about every way he could. In the end, Williams-Goss’ efforts could not negate the fact that his team had went completely cold and the Tar Heels prevailed with a 71-65 win, redeeming their heartbreaking loss last year to Villanova.
Despite losing the battle on the boards and shooting an atrocious 14.8 percent from three, Roy Williams and his squad got the win. UNC accurately demonstrated the philosophy that “defense wins games” by forcing Gonzaga to turn the ball over on multiple occasions and taking advantage of every extra opportunity. Carolina guard Joel Berry III hit four threes and finished with 22 points helping to lift the Heels to victory. Alongside Berry III, was forward Justin Jackson who recorded 16 points but failed to hit a single three, going 0-9 from beyond the arc. Although they were out rebounded, Hicks and Meeks combined for 20 points and 19 rebounds, but made a larger impact on the defensive side of the ball, shutting Karnowski down, forcing him to go 1-8 from the field and making him earn his points at the line.
Gonzaga’s sloppy play in the second half was the reason why the Bulldogs fell short in this championship matchup. Mark Few’s squad would have come out on top, had they not gone cold from the field and committed so many turnovers. After the game, Few and ESPN announcers commented that there were a few officiating errors in the last few minutes of the game. One main error was the late game jump ball call when Kennedy Meeks and Gonzaga guard Silas Melson fought for a rebound on the ground and Meeks put his hand out of bounds while touching the ball during this scuffle. Failing to see Meeks’ mistake the referees called a jump ball, which in turn, gave UNC the ball.
With this win, Roy Williams earned his third national championship and Hicks and Meeks go out on top in their last game for the Tar Heels as they now prepare to start their NBA careers. In the process, the Heels crushed Gonzaga’s hopes of making school history in winning their first national championship, following their first Final Four appearance. Maybe this defeat will motivate Mark Few and the Zags to avenge their emotional loss in next year’s tournament, as UNC did this year.