It’s what this North Carolina men’s basketball team has preached all season long, in interviews with the public and text messages to one another: Get back to Monday night. Only this time, don’t leave empty-handed.
And with a 71-65 win over Gonzaga in University of Phoenix Stadium — despite a bevy of fouls and one of the team’s worst shooting performances of the season — now they won’t.
Now they’ll leave Arizona as national champions.
“It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before,” Justin Jackson said. “We did it. We won.”
As for that unofficial motto or slogan or whatever you want to call it — redemption — it was still on these players’ minds before Monday night’s game. Heck, they were talking about it the night before the game, too, when Brandon Robinson and a handful of others stumbled out of their hotel for a late-night ice cream break.
“Last night, we were just talking all about, ‘This could last for a lifetime,’” Robinson said. “We can talk about this for the rest of our lives.”
That conversation carried over to Monday night, after the sun crept through several sets of blinds, beckoning the morning and the day and all that would come with it — beckoning a national championship win, as it so happened.
So the players awoke — some clapping in their rooms, others warily just to close the blinds — and stumbled down to their breakfast and subsequent shootaround. There it was loose, carefree. Theo Pinson played DJ on his iPhone, queuing up a playlist of Young Thug and Drake and a whole host of other hip-hop artists. Then he danced, ceremoniously and as he has all season, until he and roommate Joel Berry retired to their room for a pregame nap.
The pair finally woke up for the game, got dressed to head to the bus. And then, as he walked out of the bathroom, a thought struck Pinson. So he turned to Berry and was totally honest.
“I said, ‘This is just unreal that we get a second chance at this,’” Pinson said. “Not a lot of people can say they get to do that. And I told him, ‘We about to take this thing.’”
Then the team piled into the bus and drove to the stadium, suddenly pensive, suddenly focused. Managers turned their heads from the front of the bus and saw tops of heads — players texting one another messages of encouragement and inspiration.
And then, Pinson had one last message for the group, a secret of sorts he’d been keeping this tournament. He mashed on his iPhone and sent a text to the team’s group chat — it’s called Redemption — and let it sit there as parting words.
“He was like, ‘I’ve had this screen saver since the tournament started,’” Nate Britt said.
It’s true. Since UNC’s first game against Texas Southern just over two weeks ago, Pinson’s background has been a photo of him after last season’s national championship loss to Villanova, head hung with a towel draped over him.
“Let’s change history,” the message continued. “Let’s make the outcome different this time.”
Eventually the game began, and it looked like the Tar Heels may have missed the message. They shot a meager 31 percent in the first half, and if not for an 8-0 run to start the second half, may have been out of it entirely.
Then came the fouls, an absurd 44 total in the game, and UNC found itself up three with 21.9 seconds left after an Isaiah Hicks shot. The rest of the game was a flash — a Kennedy Meeks block, an outlet pass to a streaking Jackson, then another Meeks interception to seal it. Berry, who finished with 22 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, fittingly had the ball in his hands as the clock ran down.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock and blue confetti rained down, the excitement and relief couldn’t be put into words. Championship shirts, towels, hats — the players tossed it all on and met at the stage to collect their trophy, the one they’d dreamed of for 364 days.
Then there were jokes and comments and thousands of other minuscule remarks that will fade into the lore of this win. But above them all, one stood out.
Pinson, phone and screen saver in hand, called out to his teammates, got their attention. Then he said what they’d all been thinking, what they’d lingered on and strived for this entire year.
“We number one,” Pinson shouted. “The redemption tour is done!”