GLENDALE, ARIZ. — On this stage, 364 days ago, the North Carolina men's basketball team fell hard.
There's no way it didn't hurt. Fighting back from 10 points down; hitting an unbelievable circus shot to tie the game with 4.7 seconds left; watching it all fade into the background as Kris Jenkins gave Villanova the national title at the buzzer. How could you possibly take that punch and get off the mat?
But tonight at University of Phoenix Stadium, UNC finished what it started. As the final buzzer sounded on North Carolina's 71-65 win over Gonzaga, the pain subsided. In stepped immense joy. The Tar Heels are national champions.
Both teams started out of sync on the offensive side of the floor, as North Carolina held just an 8-7 lead at the first media timeout.
That would be the last lead the Tar Heels would see in the first half. After throwing out a lineup consisting of Seventh Woods, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, Luke Maye and Tony Bradley, UNC quickly found itself with a 21-14 deficit.
The Tar Heels climbed back within two points over the next two minutes, but a short time later the Bulldogs were able to push the lead to seven points once again. In danger of putting itself in a huge first-half hole, North Carolina went on another run, and it headed into the break trailing 35-32.
Head coach Roy Williams must have said something to rally the troops at halftime, because the Tar Heels came out of the locker room and took no prisoners.
Joel Berry started things with a steal and transition layup to cut the lead to one. From there, free throws by Justin Jackson, a dunk by Meeks and another make by Berry gave UNC a five-point lead and forced Gonzaga head coach Mark Few to call a timeout with 17:15 left in the game.
That timeout worked wonders for the Zags, who were able to quickly take back the lead after a three-point play by Zach Collins and a three by Jordan Mathews.
The last 15 minutes of the game slogged along as the buckets stopped falling and the fouls racked up. The Tar Heels led by one with under a minute left, but pushed it to three after a layup by Isaiah Hicks. A block and dunk on Gonzaga's next possession pushed the lead to five, and another forced turnover sealed the deal for the Tar Heels.
Who stood out?
Joel Berry said Sunday that he might take on a facilitator role in the UNC offense against Gonzaga, but he proved Monday that no amount of pain can keep him from playing his game.
The junior guard scored a game-high 22 points on 7-for-19 shooting. His ability to pace the North Carolina offense and his tenacity on defense helped the Tar Heels complete the job.
Another name that deserves credit is Theo Pinson. The junior wing was trusted to guard national player of the year candidate Nigel Williams-Goss, and he locked him down for the better part of Monday's game.
When was it decided?
Leading by three with less than thirty seconds remaining, the Tar Heels picked up a loose ball after a Kennedy Meeks block, leading to a Justin Jackson dunk on the other end.
Gonzaga turned the ball over on its next possession, Joel Berry knocked down a free throw and UNC finished the job.
Why does it matter?
This is Roy Williams' third NCAA title, and the program's sixth overall, but more important than the numbers is how North Carolina got here.
Last year's devastation following the loss of Villanova could have demoralized Williams and the returning Tar Heels, but they decided they would instead use the loss as motivation for something greater.
They set out to get back to where they were, and then finish the job once they got there. The Tar Heels did that tonight.
Where do they play next?
The season might be over, but the Tar Heels made sure they would go out on top.
Up next is an offseason filled with celebration, but also a few questions. How will North Carolina replace Kennedy Meels and Isaiah Hicks in the frontcourt? Will Justin Jackson declare for the NBA Draft?
The Tar Heels will have to find answers to those questions quickly, especially if they hope to reach this stage again next season.
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