On – 04 Apr, 2017 By Matt Norlander
The top-seeded Tar Heels gave No. 1 Gonzaga its second loss of this 2016-17 season and won their sixth national championship in program history with a 71-65 win at University of Phoenix Stadium.
A bizarrely skittish national championship game served as one of the choppiest contests of the tournament, for the Tar Heels, that will be forgotten in the glow of a championship win. A sequence of clutch plays in the final minute allows UNC to separate from Gonzaga and find victory. Isaiah Hicks’ one-hander with 26 seconds to go gave UNC a three-point lead. Kennedy Meeks’ block, ensuing pass to Justin Jackson — who dunked on a breakaway — and then Meeks’ steal on Gonzaga’s next possession wrapped up the championship.
There would be no allowance for a buzzer-beater this year.
Joel Berry, plagued by two injured ankles during this tournament run, led all scorers with 22 points in 37 minutes played and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after the game.
Officiating becomes buzz of title game
The officiating and foul trouble cannot go unmentioned. Frequent whistles kept the game from developing a flow. For perspective, last year’s Villanova-North Carolina epic had 36 total foul calls. Monday night’s title game finished with 44.
Quick whistles after halftime put both teams in the bonus with 14 minutes left in the second half, with Gonzaga’s 7-foot freshman Zach Collins picking up his fourth foul with 15:53 left and 7-1 senior Przemek Karnowski getting his fourth with 8:02 left. The Tar Heels dealt with foul trouble as well — Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks each finished the game with four fouls — but the fact that Collins, an NBA talent who took over with 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks against South Carolina, played just 14 minutes, six minutes in the second half, will always sting for Gonzaga fans when thinking back to the program’s first national title appearance.
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There is also the matter of this jump-ball call in the final minute, after Karnowski knocked the ball from Meeks’ hands under the basket and he was tied up by Killian Tillie. Fans circulated this photo from the CBS broadcast, which shows Meeks’ hand out of bounds during the battle for possession.
This was a monster call. UNC was up one, 66-65 at this point, and not only did they score on the ensuing possession, but they went on to score the next six point while Gonzaga never scored again.
The turning point for the Tar Heels
Neither team shot the ball well (Gonzaga: 33.9 percent, UNC: 35.6 percent), the game was clunky because of the aforementioned foul situation and a few lengthy reviews, but with three minutes left the national championship was on the line. There were 11 ties and 12 lead changes, but the Tar Heels closed the game on a 9-2 run.
“Both teams played extremely hard, I don’t think either team played really well,” Roy Williams said after the game. “I told my team with three minutes left that at the beginning of practice if you had told me we were going to be in this situation I would take it. Isaiah Hicks made a big basket for us, and we did play the last three minutes.”
Hicks’ bucket came just after the jump ball under the basket, and then Meeks came up with two game-winning plays on the defensive end with a block of Nigel Williams-Goss that led to a Justin Jackson dunk and a steal on the next Gonzaga possession to ice the game for good.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 4, 2017
With the win, the 2017 Tar Heels became the fourth team in NCAA Tournament history to win the national championship one year after losing in the title game. UNC did it first in 1982, rebounding from a loss to Indiana the year before with a game-winner from then-freshman Michael Jordan against now-Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas. Duke followed up its 1990 title game loss to UNLV with the championship in 1991 and Kentucky bounced back from its title game loss to Arizona with a victory against Utah in 1998.