This moment — adorned with tears, then triumph, then euphoria — finally belonged to them. To 10 players hell-bent on avenging a game, a shot and a feeling forever burned into their memories. To five more committed to reaching a stage they had never known. To a man determined to remedy the cruelest ill of his coaching career.
Last season, the inevitability of the crown was palpable. But it was stolen away, snatched from the Tar Heels’ grasp by a buzzer beater from Villanova’s Kris Jenkins.
But not now. This time, with confetti raining down minutes after a 71-65 win over Gonzaga in Monday’s NCAA championship — this was for them.
“Now we can forget about what happened last year,” Joel Berry said, “and just realize the joy of this moment now.”
It wasn’t without strife. For this team, it never is.
After escaping the cusp of defeat three times this tournament, North Carolina (33-7) stared down a seven-point hole late in the first half. At intermission, the Bulldogs (37-2) led by three — UNC’s first halftime deficit this postseason.
Head coach Roy Williams lit into his team. This moment wasn’t too big for Villanova last season. Don’t let it get that way now.
“He wasn’t happy going into the half,” senior Nate Britt said, “and he made sure he let us know that.”
So North Carolina mounted an 8-0 run. But Gonzaga answered with an 8-0 burst of its own before UNC responded. It was a one-possession game for the next eight minutes, until an Isaiah Hicks floater beat the shot clock and secured a four-point cushion. And at the final media timeout, the Tar Heels clung to a one-point lead.
The confetti was three minutes away. They just had to get there.
“(Assistant) coach (Steve Robinson) just said, ‘Remember that moment and how we felt last year,’” Berry said. “‘And we don’t want that again.’”
A minute later, Gonzaga star Nigel Williams-Goss snatched the Tar Heels’ lead with a floater of his own. He then pushed the Bulldogs’ lead to two before UNC’s Justin Jackson answered with a three-point play.
Up one, the Tar Heels were one pivotal play from redemption. And there was no one better than Hicks — who came inches short of Jenkins’ shot and struggled this postseason — to rise in the paint, cradle the ball in his right hand and kiss it off the glass to seize a three-point lead.
“We just needed one ...” he said. “I felt like I was scoring that.”
Finally, the feeling was tangible. Williams-Goss forced it up the court, but Kennedy Meeks swallowed his shot and Gonzaga’s chances with it. Berry, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, kicked it to Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, for one final two-handed flush.
There were 12 seconds left. But it was over. Hicks couldn’t see the court through his tears, and Berry beckoned for a timeout, his eyes welling, as he took two final free throws with seven seconds left.
“I think both teams knew,” Theo Pinson said.
The buzzer sounded, sans any daggers from UNC’s opponent. The confetti, minutes delayed, finally littered University of Phoenix Stadium. The players savored the moment with a celebratory selfie, and “One Shining Moment” followed soon after.
This, at last, was their shining moment.
“Kris can jab at me about hitting a shot,” said Britt, Jenkins’ adoptive brother. “I don’t care.”
It’s the sixth NCAA title for UNC, but it’s the first for these Tar Heels. The first since the death of Dean Smith, Williams’ mentor and the revered architect of North Carolina basketball. The first since the subsequent passing of Bill Guthridge, Williams’ longtime friend and a beloved assistant to Smith. The first since an academic-athletic scandal that threatened a program once hailed as unassailable.
This title doesn’t erase any of that. It doesn’t even erase the pain from last season’s haunting defeat, not completely. But for the first time, these Tar Heels have light after years in the dark. For the first time, this moment is theirs.
But it’s a title beyond this moment. This is vengeance, vindication and validation. This is redemption. And, for the first time, these Tar Heels are champions.
“At the end, when you’re watching your kids jump around and the excitement,” Williams said, “the thrill they have — there’s no better feeling in the world.”