GLENDALE, Ariz. — All week long, the North Carolina men’s basketball team tried to pretend it didn’t matter. The Tar Heels tried to make anyone who had the audacity to ask about it believe that last year wasn’t still sticking them through the heart, haunting their every decision or driving them to avenge what coach Roy Williams finally conceded was “a feeling of inadequacy” that was “the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my career.”
And then, just when they needed it most, they used it.
They drew from those negative emotions, that sour experience that hung over the program like a storm cloud for nearly one full year, and harnessed the lightning within it.
With 3:08 remaining and the Tar Heels hanging on to a two-point lead that Gonzaga kept answering, assistant coach Steve Robinson played the card during a timeout.
“Coach Rob just said: ‘Remember that moment and how we felt last year, and we don’t want that again,’ ” junior point guard Joel Berry II said. “That was the moment where we locked in and went out there and gave it our all. And we were able to come out with a win.”
They did, scoring nine of the game’s final 11 points to beat Gonzaga, 71-65, in front of 76,168 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The win gave North Carolina (33-7) its sixth NCAA title and was the third for Williams, breaking a tie at two apiece with Tar Heels legend Dean Smith. He moved into a tie with Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun.
It also prompted Williams to describe the championship in a way that few other coaches with multiple titles are ever comfortable doing: his favorite.
“I’d say this one is probably more special,” he said, “because it’s been a journey the last three or four years.”
That includes not only last year’s buzzer-beating loss to Villanova but the academic fraud investigation that has been going on for several years.
Monday night, though, was all about this season, this team and this win.
It wasn’t a particularly clean game, with the teams totaling 44 fouls and hitting only 46 of 132 shots. But it certainly was exciting at the end.
It seemed as if Gonzaga junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss was going to carry his team to its first national championship all by himself when he scored eight straight points for the Zags, including a jumper that gave them a 65-63 lead with 1:53 remaining.
North Carolina’s Justin Jackson hit a jumper and a foul shot with 1:40 left to give North Carolina the lead for good at 66-65, but it wasn’t until Isaiah Hicks hit a short jumper with 25 seconds remaining to make it 68-65 that victory seemed within the Tar Heels’ grasp.
All they needed to do was get a stop, and for that they turned to senior center Kennedy Meeks. He stuffed Williams-Goss, who seemed to aggravate his ankle injuries just moments earlier, on a shot in the lane with about 16 seconds remaining. The ball fell to Berry, who passed it ahead to a wide-open Jackson for a two-handed dunk that sealed the win.
“I immediately almost started crying,” Berry said of his feelings in the final moments of play, which were far different from last year’s.
“Everybody that was on the floor was tearing up with those seven seconds left,” junior swingman Theo Pinson said. “It was so hard to keep yourself together because you knew you were that close [last year]. And it’s a feeling that you will never forget, just seeing everybody on the team just so excited that we were finally here in this moment. We did it.”
For Gonzaga (37-2), the first team from a non-major conference to reach the NCAA final since Butler in 2011, it was a heartbreaking end to a magical season.
“These guys will realize just what an amazing accomplishment they had, and what an amazing effect they had,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I mean, the basketball community was really stale on the Zags. And these guys ignited it and got everybody back to believing that this program was capable of doing this, and more than capable of winning a national championship. And they absolutely ignited the whole world to that.”
They just weren’t able to close it out.
Maybe next year at this time, an assistant coach on Gonzaga’s staff will remind them of that feeling.
On Monday night, though, it was North Carolina’s turn to exorcise its recent past and redeem itself.