North Carolina-Gonzaga was far from pretty, but Tar Heels a champion all the same
- The 2017 national title game was far from an excellent display of basketball, but in the end, that was simply an artless means to a beautiful end for champion North Carolina.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — There is a temptation that comes with stakes and outcome and the innate climax of an ending, some natural tendency to salvage some redeemability in retrospect. You can watch a few minutes of big buckets and swapped leads at the end of a mostly brutal basketball game and focus your appreciation on the pendulum of uncertainty and drama. You can watch your team miss two thirds of its shots in a game with 44 total fouls and see in it a laudable grit that makes victory that much sweeter. You can watch “One Shining Moment” and let it override so many duller ones before it.
But even in the immediate glow of his third national championship, North Carolina coach Roy Williams wasn’t having any of that. He had been up close and personal with the same sluggish 71–65 Tar Heels win over Gonzaga that everybody else had watched, and in the postgame press conference, he offered the same conclusion as so many others. “It was an ugly game,” Williams said. “I mean, I don't think either team played exceptionally well offensively.” Then, as if the letting game’s gracelessness carry over to his diction, he added: “The fouls were part of it. But just the bigness—that's a terrible way to say it. My wife's an English teacher.”
Monday’s national title game may be remembered less for what was seen than what was heard: the steady thunks as balls struck mic’d-up rims and the frequent piercing of the referees’ whistles once again halting play. Each team was called for 22 fouls (more than one per minute of play), leading to a combined 52 free throws. They combined for 86 missed field goals (more than two per minute), making 34.8% of their shots. The victors made just four of their 27 three-point attempts, and none of the 14 attempted by players other than Joel Berry II. “I don’t think you should win any game shooting (26 for 73),” said North Carolina forward Justin Jackson.
It was Jackson, surprisingly, who was that statistic’s lead culprit. Two days after knocking off Oregon with an array of floaters, the ACC Player of the Year spent Monday night launching bricks, missing 13 of his 19 shots and all nine of his three-point attempts. Free throws, put-backs and a game-sealing breakaway dunk helped him get to 16 points, but the total belied the kind of shooting night that made talk of a domed football stadium’s difficult depth perception seem insufficient. “I shot the ball like I had never shot a shot in a gym,” Jackson said.
Inside the arc things were only slightly prettier. Much was made heading into the game of the enticing post matchup between the Zags’ 7'1", 300-pound Przemek Karnowski and the Tar Heels’ 6'10", 260-pound Kennedy Meeks, two traditional, back-to-the-basket bigs at the forefront of two sizeable, skilled frontlines. But Meeks settled for a few early jumpers and scored just seven points, and Karnowski never developed any sort of offensive rhythm, making only one of eight shots. More impactfully, each was whistled for four fouls, limiting them in both availability and effectiveness, and their fellow forwards fared little better: 7-foot Gonzaga wunderkind Zach Collins fouled out in just 14 minutes, while the Zags’ Johnathan Williams and North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks drew four whistles apiece.
The officials “called it pretty tight all the way around,” said Tar Heels forward Luke Maye, who picked up three fouls in 10 minutes. “I thought it was a pretty bad for a national championship game, but I thought they called it fair both ways.”
“I'm not going to talk about refs,” Karnowski said. “It was just a physical game.”
Of course, in a game with that many whistles, an officiating conversation will be inevitable. Collins’s fourth foul seemed particularly disputable, as he stepped into Hicks to establish position in the post away from the ball. In the final minutes, when Meeks and Gonzaga’s Silas Melson tangled for a loose ball, a jump ball was called despite replays showing Meeks’s right hand being planted firmly out of bounds; with the possession arrow in their favor, the Tar Heels maintained possession. (In a tournament plagued by lengthy replay reviews, the play was somehow not looked at.) “It's tough to hear,” Few said when informed about Meeks having been out of bounds. “But, you know, that's just the way it goes.”
Down the hall, in the North Carolina locker room, there was expectedly little chatter about the refs. Instead the Tar Heels talked about resilience, about overcoming their own poor play. They talked about redemption, after their heartbreaking loss in this same game 364 days ago. They talked about their late comebacks against Arkansas and Kentucky earlier in this tournament, and how it prepared them to be unfazed when trailing Gonzaga. They talked about how after having been told by Williams to “man up” at halftime, when they huddled during the game’s final timeout, leading by five with seven seconds remaining, just about everybody was crying.
“That’s something I’ll never forget,” junior wing Theo Pinson said. “I’ll tell that story forever.”
The story of the preceding few hours, of the whistles and clanks and often unsightly basketball? Now it was just an artless means to a beautiful end—to Berry knocking down a final free throw while fighting back tears, to Pinson grabbing a final rebound and then flinging it into the air in celebration, to a cluster of Carolina blue-clad students triumphantly chanting “the ceiling is the roof!” a few feet down from the stadium’s elevated court. It was a quote from the school’s most famous alumnus, uttered at a game against Duke last month in an attempt to describe the promise of UNC’s football program. At the time it was mocked widely as a gaffe, if not exactly wrong then at least something short of graceful. But now, with the confetti on the floor and victory in hand, well, it sounded pretty good.