The North Carolina Tar Heels got redemption is the most agonizingly beautiful way possible.
From the tip, it was clear that defense would be a running theme. Both Gonzaga and UNC went on runs, but, for the most part, the teams brought the clamps out defensively. The Bulldogs, whose defense has been elite all year, held the potent Tar Heels offense to just 32 points on a suffocating 31 percent shooting the first half. Furthermore, UNC was just 2-of-13 from three, and Justin Jackson had an excruciatingly hard time getting going in the first.
He had just six points on 3-of-10 going into the break, and it was Joel Berry who led the way for the Heels with nine points and three dimes. On the other side, Roy Williams‘ team was doing a great job limiting any Bulldog who’s not named Josh Perkins, and the team, as a group, mustered just 35 points on 40 percent shooting in the first half.
Perkins had the hottest hand and racked up 13 points while draining 3-of-4 from distance and was the only bright spot on a struggling offense. However, the most interesting story from the first half was Przemek Karnowski being rendered almost invisible on the offensive end. He didn’t take a ton of shots, but the one he did take were great looks. And they continuously rimmed out.
Mark Few’s team did a tremendous job on the boards as well and held a 26-25 lead in the rebounding department, and Carolina is a team that feasts on both backboards.
The only thing that was terrible about the game was the execution on offense. (And the officiating in the second half.) Other than that, it was an entertaining game and watching the Tar Heels flip the switch was surprising.
Roy Williams must’ve channeled his inner Norman Dale at halftime because the Heels came out and played like the would never play another basketball game in their lives. They forced a turnover on the opening inbounds and immediately used that to launch an 8-0 run. After that, it would pretty much be all UNC. Gonzaga’s offense regressed tremendously in the second half, and it was clear that the Heels were no longer the worse team.
By night’s end, Carolina had staged the comeback and dropped 39 points in the second while limiting the Bulldogs to just 30 to make the final score 71-65. Jackson hung up 10 of those 39 while Joel Berry finished with 22 points remained the only consistent option for UNC, but all of the bigs were huge on the boards and kept that margin close.
Even though Gonzaga won the rebounding battle 49-46, it wasn’t a big enough differential to give Carolina problems, and Kennedy Meeks (10), Isaiah Hicks (nine) and Theo Pinson (also nine) forfeited their impact on offense to produce elsewhere. The bigs were huge in altering shots around the basket, but the perimeter guys for Carolina deserve just as much credit. The Bulldogs were scorching from outside and went 8-of-19 from deep, but the other 40 attempts came inside the arc, and they missed 28 of those shots.
As great as UNC was on defense, their offense was just as putrid, but it stayed consistently putrid throughout the evening. They literally couldn’t buy a basket from the outside. But that was the case for the entire night. Jackson didn’t make a three, and he shot nine times; Pinson threw up a goose egg as well but only took four shots. The lone Tar Heel to make a triple was Berry, and he connected on four of his 13 attempts. Overall, UNC made just 36 percent of their shots despite jacking up 27 threes.
As unwatchable as the game was, North Carolina did a phenomenal job holding onto the basketball and committed just four turnovers for the entire contest. That, however, is the only thing they did well when they had the ball. Conversely, they forced Gonzaga into 14 turnovers.
I think I’ve buried the lede long enough. I alluded to this earlier, but the officials during the last 20 minutes were awful and inconsistent and did a total 180 from the first 20. Touch fouls that weren’t getting called in the first half were whistled ad nauseam in the second, and it quickly turned the game into a snooze-fest. Each team got called for 22 personals, eight more than the 36 combined we saw during last year’s final.
But wait, it gets better.
Not only were the whistled not swallowed, watching Gonzaga and North Carolina clank free throw after free throw was basketball’s version of sitting through a root canal. They shot 26 times apiece from the charity stripe, and this game could’ve been a double-digit margin if either were more consistent.
The Bulldogs were 17-of-26, and the Heels were 15-of-26 — that’s 65 and 58 percent, respectively. The poor free throw shooting is incredibly uncharacteristic even though both sides are average from the line. For the year, the Zags shot 71.7 percent and UNC was a bit lower at 70.1.
Meeks and Berry had it the hardest for Carolina and went 5-of-12 combined while Nigel Williams-Goss was the only Bulldog with noticeable inaccuracy.
Despite the loss, Gonzaga is finally alongside the NCAA’s elite and Mark Few is, without a doubt, one of college basketball’s most outstanding coaches. A West Coast Conference team trekked through March Madness and beat the toughest opponents they’ve faced all year — and they did so without a projected pick in the 2017 draft.
The redemption run is now complete for Roy Williams and his Tar Heels. As ugly and poorly officiated as it was, North Carolina played like a championship team and forcibly took the title from Gonzaga’s hands. They did it while being led by four sensational upperclassmen and without a one-and-done, and having seniors and juniors makes winning gritty games that much easier.
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