North Carolina edges out Gonzaga to win sixth National Championship

 

SONG SELECTION:

Allie X, “Old Habits Die Hard”

Song can be found on her SoundCloud page

Redemption could not be any sweeter for the Tar Heels and their fans

Going into the 2017 National Championship game, Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few had a better winning percentage (.813) compared to North Carolina’s Roy Williams (.790).  Also, three of the last four titles won by North Carolina were against number 1 seeds:  1982 vs. Georgetown, 1993 vs. Michigan, and 2005 vs. Illinois.

The game started out in Glendale, Arizona with Gonzaga senior Przemek Karnowski making a bad pass and Theo Pinson converting with a dunk on the other end.  Fellow senior Kennedy Meeks a few seconds later made a jumper and UNC was off and running.

Gonzaga got their offense started with Johnathan Williams with a nice baby hook shot in the lane.  North Carolina still led 5-4 with 17:16 to go in the first half.

Karnowski still managed to show no effects of his eye problem from getting hit by Chris Silva of South Carolina.  However, the shots were simply not falling from very close range.  North Carolina basically double teamed him most of the time, so it wasn’t like they were out there pretending to gang up like a football team around the opposing team’s star running back.  Twice, Karnowski missed at the 16:28 and 16:09 marks and that opened the door for Josh Perkins to convert on two straight turnaround jumpers.  One was from two point range, the other on a deep three from Nigel Williams-Goss as Gonzaga led 7-5 at the first TV time out (15:54 left in the first half).

On the next Gonzaga possession, Jordan Matthews drilled a three and was fouled.  However, he missed the free throw and Gonzaga led 10-8 at the 15:17 mark.  Zach Collins made his presence felt before being saddled with foul trouble as his left handed dunk sparked a Bulldogs run.  After a Tar Heels missed shot from deep, Goss made a cool 10 foot jumper to give Gonzaga a 14-10 lead with 13:25 to go.

Justin Jackson then made a floating jumper 18 seconds later to trim the Gonzaga lead to 14-12.  By this point, both teams had shot 5 for 12 from the field, but the ‘Zags held the rebounding edge 10 to 6.  That was before seldom used bench player Nate Britt converted on a layup and the game was tied at 14 with 12:37 remaining in the first half.

The next time down on defense, Karnowski stuffed Elite 8 hero Luke Maye going up for a dunk at the 11:08 mark, then Williams made a short hook shot to give Gonzaga a 21-14 lead with 10:13 left.  North Carolina was going through a dry spell not scoring for a four minute stretch before Joel Berry II made the first of his four three-point shots at the 8:49 mark (which would turn out to be the only long distance shots UNC would make for the entire game), was fouled by Matthews and missed the free throw that went along with it.  Justin Jackson then converted a rebound for a quick bucket at the 8:21 mark to trim Gonzaga’s lead to 21-19.

Gonzaga then went through a similar pointless streak, not scoring for around 3 1/2 minutes before Zach Collins made a short jumper to push the lead up to 23-19 with 6:32 remaining on the first half clock.  Josh Perkins (who would finish the first half leading all scorers with 13 points) made a pair of free throws with 4:38 to go, would later miss a three-pointer and Josh Perkins missed a three for Gonzaga, Joel Berry II’s subsequent three point attempt clanked off the side of the rim.

Gonzaga continued to lead 28-21, which would be their largest lead of the game with 4:16 to go.  Silas Melson’s trey with 1:39 left and after UNC feasted again inside, Theo Pinson made two free throws for North Carolina.  The lead was down to the slimmest of margins at 33-32, still Gonzaga was in front.  Nigel Williams-Goss made a pair of free throws with six seconds to play and closed out a rather erratic first half with Gonzaga leading 35-32.

The halftime stats read like this:

Gonzaga was 12 of 30 overall from the floor, but 5 of 9 from three.

North Carolina in the first 20 minutes was 11 of 36 overall, but only 2 of 13 from three (15.4 percent).  Most of the Tar Heels three point attempts were rarely contested, they were simply wide open looks and the ball refused to go down.

The rebounding had a very slim edge in Gonzaga’s favor 25-23, but UNC had twice as many offensive rebounds (8 to 4).

Second half featured too many fouls and a nearly close finish

The final 20 minutes from Glendale, Arizona started with Joel Berry II hitting a jumper to trim Gonzaga’s lead to one at 35-34.  Justin Jackson then made a pair of free throws, this after Josh Perkins made an ill-advised pass.  35 seconds into the second half and North Carolina was back in the lead at 36-35.

A major concern for Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few was the foul trouble his big men was getting mired into.  Johnathan Williams joined Zach Collins in having three personal fouls with 18:52 remaining.  On the next Tar Heels possession, Kennedy Meeks made a layup and Carolina went on a big run of their own.

Leading 38-35, Joel Berry II again converted on a jumper, this time from 18 feet out on the right wing.  With 17:39 to play, North Carolina lead by five at 40-35.  Gonzaga then decided to call time out and it sparked another Bulldogs rally.

First, Collins made a hook shot and was fouled by Meeks with 16:52 to go.  His made free throw cut the UNC lead to 40-38.  Jordan Mathews converted on a trey from the left corner to put Gonzaga back in the lead at 41-40 with 16:29 left.  The next time down, Zach Collins committed his fourth personal foul and had to sit on the bench with 15:53 to play.

Gonzaga bench player Killian Tillie helped save the next possession, then a nice give-and-go to Karnowski gave the Polish big man his first and only made basket of the day with 14:34 remaining.  Although Karnowski was 7 of 9 from the line, this charity attempt was missed and Gonzaga again led 42-41.

In the game’s first 26 minutes, North Carolina was an anemic 2 of 17 from three-point land.  However, the Tar Heels ability to shut down Gonzaga’s ability to score inside was one of the key reasons why North Carolina was able to lead for a longer period of time.

After Goss made a careless turnover, Theo Pinson scored on a layup and Isaiah Hicks would have a layup of his own and later get fouled.  His missed free throw left Gonzaga another chance to grab the lead once more, trailing this time 44-43 with 13:14 left.

Karnowski made a pair of free throws and then Joel Berry, slightly bad ankles and all converted on his third three-point shot of the night to give Carolina back the lead at 47-46.

By this juncture, 16 total fouls were committed in the first 7 minutes and 45 seconds of the second half.  No flow at all, it was definitely a very chippy game in nature by this point.

Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Luke Maye each had three fouls a piece and even worse for the Tar Heels, they committed their tenth team foul with 10:13 remaining in the game.  This meant that Gonzaga would get two free throws each time a North Carolina player committed a foul.

Killian Tillie also made his presence felt off the bench with nine rebounds, but his only point came from splitting two free throw attempts.  The next time down, Meeks split his pair of free throws and would later commit his fourth personal foul with 9:42 to go, North Carolina still in front 48-47.

The first moment of near controversy saw Karnowski jump for the rebound, but would nearly strangle Berry’s head from not snapping back in an attempt to get the ball.  The result of the play was a Flagrant 1 foul, which meant that Karnowski on the initial foul made both of his attempts from the charity stripe, but Berry missed of his attempts.  The game was tied again at 52 with 8:02 left in regulation time.

Seldom used Tony Bradley then started the final key stretch scoring wise for Roy Williams, as his dunk at the 7:37 mark gave North Carolina a 54-52 lead.  After another Gonzaga misfire, Hicks made a 4 foot baseline jumper just as the shot clock was running out.  Replays showed that Hicks got the ball off it time and North Carolina had a short cushion, leading 56-52.

Then, Gonzaga made one last run.  First, Zach Collins made a jumper and traded baskets with Hicks.  Johnathan Williams made a huge three at the 5:23 mark to cut UNC’s lead to 58-57.  However, Zach Collins was the first (and would turn out to be the only) player to foul out with 9 points and 7 rebounds.

However, the opportunities for Gonzaga were simply coming too far and not in a shorter amount of time.  And yes, even Joel Berry nearly got hurt again.  This guy has amazing intestinal fortitude and true sportsmanship to go along with it.

Tony Bradley then would split on another pair of free throws as Gonzaga committed their ninth team foul.  North Carolina still led 59-57 with 5:03 to play.  Johnathan Williams then airballed a shot from three-point land, but North Carolina touched the ball on the baseline.  Goss then hit another three a few seconds later to give Gonzaga a 60-59 lead and the crowd in Spokane, Washington was going nuts with 4:36 to go.

However, North Carolina had Berry hit his fourth and final try with 4:17 left and the Tar Heels led 62-60.  Isaiah Hicks would commit his fourth foul, further adding to the intrigue as he fouled Goss with 3:08 left to play.

After the final TV time out of the season, Goss split on a pair of free throws and Pinson missed a three on the other end.  Goss then hit a jumper to give Gonzaga a short-lived 63-61 lead.  Justin Jackson would later get fouled and hit both of his free throws to tie the game again at 63 with 2:09 to play.  A Goss jumper gave Gonzaga a 65-63 lead with 1:53 to go, then Jackson made a driving layup and was fouled by Goss.  His made free throw gave UNC a 66-65 lead with 1:40 left to play.

What followed was simply players making plays, similar to Freddie Brown of Georgetown threw his inadvertent pass to James Worthy way back when in the closing seconds of the 1982 National championship game.

The second moment of controversy involved Kennedy Meeks in a small rugby scrum trying to get a loose ball.  His right hand was out of bounds, but the referees did not see it.  Instead, the tie-up situation led to a jump ball and the alternating possession (IMHO, the dumbest rule in sports) gave the ball back to the Tar Heels.

Isaiah Hicks converted on a banker jump shot to give UNC a 68-65 lead with 25 seconds left.  After Gonzaga used their final time out with 21.9 seconds to play, Kennedy Meeks made the championship saving block and a simple run-out pass by Berry, which led to a dunk by Justin Jackson.  Another turnover by Karnowski and Carolina sealed it at the free throw line with 7.3 seconds left as Berry won the 2017 Most Outstanding Player award with 22 points.  His back-to-back 20 point efforts in the last two championship games was last accomplished by Bill Walton of UCLA way back in 1972-73.  Gail Goodrich also did it in 1964-65 during the early days of the UCLA dynasty.

Roy Williams has more national titles while as Head Coach of North Carolina than his predecessor in Dean Smith.  By winning his third title in a hard-fought 71-65 effort in a game that featured 45 total fouls, North Carolina simply dominated inside the paint 40 to 18.  The only other five coaches to win at least three titles:  Adolph Rupp, John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Mike Kryzezewski, and Jim Calhoun.

Although North Carolina was not effective from long distance, shooting only 4 of 27 on the night–they held Gonzaga to only 33.9 percent shooting (20 of 59).  North Carolina overall was not much better, shooting 26 of 73 for 35.6 percent.  Gonzaga was held to shooting 8 out of 29 in the second half, but it was the first and only time this season that the Tar Heels were outrebounded (49 to 46).

Two major differences in this game that tilted the game in North Carolina’s favor:  the Tar Heels had a 15-9 edge on the offensive glass and they only committed four turnovers.  Gonzaga made 14 turnovers.

For Gonzaga, what a season finishing up as the national runners-up at 37-2.  They were trying to become the first team since the 2002 Maryland Terrapins to win in their first attempt in reaching the Final Four.  The Bulldogs also nearly joined the 1990 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and the 1984 Georgetown Hoyas when they won their respective championships by not playing any games against any opponent who was in the Top 10, according to the Associated Press.

Gonzaga is the fourth team since 1985 (fifth if you count Memphis, when their 2008 runner-up appearance would be later vacated) to have at least one loss during the season and come up short in the championship game:

The others:  Duke in 1999, Illinois in 2005, and Kentucky in 2011.

Fighting back tears at the post-game press conference, Nigel Williams-Goss led the ‘Zags with 15 points and nine rebounds.  Karnowski finished his college career not knowing if he was healthy enough to play prior to his junior year with the back flaring up on a near constant basis.  He had matching totals of 9 points and 9 rebounds, but was mostly ineffective in shooting the ball.  Josh Perkins was the only other Gonzaga player to finish in double figures with 13 points.

Besides Berry’s 22, Justin Jackson had 16 points and Isaiah Hicks chipped in when his team needed some scoring the most with 13 crucial points and nine huge rebounds.  Kennedy Meeks led everyone with 10 rebounds.

North Carolina became the first team since Kentucky in 1998 and the fourth school overall to win the championship after losing the title game in the year prior.

Some final closing thoughts for the season…almost

Before truTV ends their rather stupid reality shows of The Impractical Jokers and Hack My Life next March, I will have one final blog this coming Friday night as I will briefly chronicle the annual Player of the Year Awards from the Downtown Los Angeles Athletic Club and sponsored by Wendy’s Hamburgers.

I hope my 14th and final podcast of the season will hopefully resonate well with my true and honest online fans and friends.  You know who you all are.

If I start naming names again, I may have to fight back some tears.  However, they are all going to be happy tears this time around.

But I am very thrilled to say that not only did I have North Carolina beating Gonzaga in my initial brackets, but I did not cry during the late, great Luther Vandross’ version of One Shining Moment.  It was very nice to see some of the players working out in the locker rooms in addition to viewing most of the key plays of this tournament firmly in the rear view mirror, as that always sappy, corny song joins the other 30 annual versions going back to Indiana’s last triumph in 1987 for all fans to savor.

Next year, TBS will bring back the Team Stream and for the third time (1998 and 2004 to be precise), the Final Four returns to the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.  Finally, we might be able to see the benches at court level.

The final ratings were simply impressive for CBS, up 21% from the Turner outlets in 2016.  And others who caught up with the March Madness Live app downloaded the action 4.4 million times, a 49 percent streaming increase from the 2016 Tournament.

Please have a good night everyone, and I hope you can stay tuned to this blog during the off season–which I affectionately refer to as the Electric Iron and Steel League as there are still four major coaches openings waiting to be filled at Washington, California at Berkeley, New Mexico, and Oklahoma State.

I will have one final blog to post sometime on Friday night after ESPN2 airs the Player of the Year Awards.  It will air for 90 minutes instead of an hour, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

As for when I hope to start my fifth season of blogging, I plan to start with the 2017-2018 Season Preview sometime during the week of October 23 or November 6.

Please have a fun spring and summer everyone, and thank you again for all of your online support.

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