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 three-point play with 1:40 left last night 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 fuelled by a devastating loss in last year's title game on Kris Jenkins' three-point dagger at the buzzer for Villanova.
“I wanted to see this confetti fall on us and we're the winners,” said Carolina's Joel Berry II, who led the Tar Heels with 22 points.
“We came out here and we competed,” he added.
“It came down to the last second but we're national champs now.”
Berry, along with most of Roy Williams' players, returned for another run. But to say everything went right for them at this Final Four would not be the truth.
The Tar Heels (33-7) followed a terrible-shooting night in Saturday's semi-final win with an equally ice-cold performance in the final—going just 4-for-27 from three-point land and 26-for-73 overall.
Gonzaga, helped by eight-straight points from Nigel Williams-Goss, took a two-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 Theo Pinson and converted the shot, then made the ensuing free throw to take the lead for good.
Isaiah Hicks made a basket to push the lead to three, 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 title—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,” he stressed.
Berry recovered from ankle injuries to lead the Tar Heels, but needed 19 shots for his 22 points.
Jackson had 16 on a 6-for-19 night and, 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.
In many corners, this game will be remembered for 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 seven-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.
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 looked virtually impossible. With less than two minutes left, they had the lead in the national title game.
“We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn't break,” Johnathan Williams said.
Meanwhile, North Carolina got over a hump that, at times this season, felt like a mountain.
“They wanted redemption," Roy 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.”