The North Carolina Tar Heels are college basketball’s national champions. They beat the Gonzaga Bulldogs in a thrilling title game on Monday, 71-65, in Glendale, Ariz. It’s the sixth title in the history of the program. The game was tight until the last few seconds.
North Carolina, leading by three in the final seconds, forced a stop against Gonzaga and set up a breakaway dunk by star small forward Justin Jackson. That gave the Heels a five-point lead in the final 10 seconds, effectively sealing the game.
Gonzaga led by as many as seven points during the first half, but the teams traded enough baskets that the Bulldogs went into the break with a three-point edge. North Carolina only shot 31 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, but the Heels stayed in the game with eight offensive boards that led to nine second-chance points. Gonzaga spent 15 of the first 20 minutes with the lead.
UNC charged to a five-point lead in the opening minutes of the second half, and the teams hopped on a scoring see-saw that continued until the closing moments. It was obvious with about 16 minutes left that we’d be in for a dramatic finish. (If it wasn’t obvious two days ago that we’d be in for a dramatic finish, that is.)
It’s a brutal ending for Gonzaga, which had a remarkable year. The Bulldogs were 37-1 entering the game, playing in the first Final Four in their nearly two-decade history as an every-year NCAA tournament team. There’s so much to be said for the Zags getting over a hump and making it to this point and no shame whatsoever in losing once they got here. This was Mark Few’s best team in 18 brilliant years, and it was good enough to win a national title. That it missed one so narrowly will sting for a long time.
North Carolina was playing in the title game for the second time in two years. The Heels lost at the buzzer to Kris Jenkins and Villanova 364 days before this game. Jenkins was in the stands this year, wearing a UNC shirt for another reason.
It took a lot to get back, and losing again in the last game of the season would’ve been devastating. That UNC managed to redeem itself on the same stage a year later will change everything about how this era of Heels basketball is viewed. Two title game defeats in a row would’ve caused a degree of pain that could never go away.
It’s the third national title for Roy Williams, whose Hall of Fame career got a little bit better. His team had to work for every ounce of it.