UNC overcomes ghosts, pain, Gonzaga to reach its national title ceiling the Carolina Way
- With Joel Berry II battling a pair of sprained ankles and last year's ghost of NCAA finals past sitting behind the bench, UNC stayed its course to overcome Gonzaga in a foul-ridden title game to win a sixth national championship.
This story appears in the April 10 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Justin Jackson reached for the rim with "god’s" written on the heel of his left shoe and "will" written on the heel of his right, but the junior forward was here, about to clinch North Carolina’s sixth national championship, because of a guard’s will.
Joel Berry II had two sprained ankles, but he was the best player on the floor at University of Phoenix Stadium. If you were surprised, you do not wear Carolina blue. You were not there two years ago, when Berry played with a torn groin muscle for weeks before telling trainers about the pain shooting all the way up to his stomach. You did not see his face last Thursday, when he was forced to ride a stationary bike while his teammates practiced. Coach Roy Williams walked up to him and said, “You’re mad because you’re not going to be able to do any full-court today.” Berry forced a grin, but Williams says he was “growling underneath.”
As Williams shook Berry’s hand before the national title game, he told his junior point guard, “Use your legs.” He did not want Berry favoring his ankles. As it turned out, Berry’s legs were just about the only limbs that worked for anybody in the Tar Heels’ clunky 71–65 win over Gonzaga in Glendale, Ariz.
Williams sensed early on that the title game would be a grind: “Most of the time, if it starts out ugly, it’s going to be ugly.”
He was correct. Two wonderful teams played bumper cars for 40 minutes. The refs acted like they were paid by the foul. Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski said the one thing he will remember from the last game of his magnificent career was “that I missed a lot of layups.” Berry will remember finishing with 22 points, six assists, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player award and the joy he expected to feel a year ago.
If you want the big, dramatic story of North Carolina’s sixth national championship, here you go: In last year’s title game, Tar Heels senior Marcus Paige hit an impossible, elbow-way-down, knee-way-up three-pointer that tied the game with 4.7 seconds left, but then Villanova’s Kris Jenkins responded with a game-winning three-pointer of his own that broke the Tar Heels’ hearts, forcing them to go to med school to perform open-heart surgery on themselves, and then they each tattooed a picture of Jenkins’s shot over the scars on their chests, came back with the anger of a thousand defeated armies and avenged the loss, robbed Villanova’s endowment and hoisted the 2017 trophy.
Now here is the truth: After Jenkins’s dagger, Carolina just kept on being Carolina. That’s all. The coaches went back to Chapel Hill and broke down the game film. At the team banquet the next week, Paige did not just reminisce or sulk; he pointed to each returning player and told him what he expected from him the next season.
Last summer freshman forward Tony Bradley, a top-30 recruit, started playing pickup games with the Tar Heels. When a ball rolled out of bounds, he heard them yell, “Freshmen! Freshmen!’”
And Bradley said, “What?”
Then he was told, When a ball rolls off the court at UNC, a freshman fetches it. Bradley could have argued, but he would have been put in his place—not just by his team’s seniors, but also by former stars Raymond Felton, Rasheed Wallace, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Hansbrough, who regularly joined the team for games.
The great trick of North Carolina basketball is that it thrives in 2017 while still acting, in many ways, like it is 1982. The Tar Heels have not had a freshman leave for the NBA since Brandan Wright in 2007. They have not had a player transfer into or out of the program since ’11. Hang around the gym after a Tar Heels practice, and you’ll find one of Carolina’s assistants coaching the junior varsity team. The UNC JV competes against small schools and community colleges. Dean Smith believed every Carolina student not already on scholarship should have the chance to try out for the JV team. So does the guy who coached that squad for eight years: Williams.
North Carolina runs the most self-assured program in the country. The Tar Heels expect to win their way, no matter what decade it is or what the media says or what the hot trend in the game is. Ask Williams if he is a fan of advanced stats, and he responds, sincerely, “Is that the same thing as analytics?” Then he laughs and says, “O.K. No, I’m not.”
Williams believes in playing fast, in grabbing offensive rebounds and in what his eyes tell him. He would love to sign a one-and-done freshman, but he won’t use his program as a marketing tool for them. And he believes North Carolina should always expect to be the best program in the land, which is why people who focus on Villanova’s winning the 2016 championship miss the point. Sure, that motivated the Heels. But so did the ’15 championship, which was won by—excuse our language—Duke.
Those Blue Devils were led by freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. You can imagine how that sat with Berry, Jackson and Theo Pinson, all Carolina freshmen at the time. Jackson played AAU ball with Winslow in Houston, and the two are friendly, but Jackson’s mother, Sharon, says, “I’m sure part of him hated that.”
Williams is more blunt: “They were jealous after what Duke did their freshman year. They were mad about it. I could see it. They saw what could be done. And I think it motivated all three of them to work more.”
Pinson improved his game. Berry improved his focus. Jackson turned himself into an NBA first-round pick, possibly in the lottery, whenever he leaves. But mostly, they helped form the most Carolina of champions: Three starters (Pinson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks) are from the state, and the other two (Berry and Jackson) grew up loving the Heels.
At times in recent years, Williams seemed to be battling his health, a hovering academic scandal and sportswriters who said North Carolina had lost its way. For nearly two decades, through 2011, hundreds of student athletes—including many football and basketball players—were steered into fake classes. The investigation is still ongoing. Hundreds of nonathletes also enrolled in the bogus classes, and Williams is adamant that this is not a basketball issue. He refers to the story as “junk,” and he points out that he has not been personally accused of an NCAA violation. Others in the media argue that the school has acted like most universities when a scandal hits; it’s been far more interested in fighting allegations than investigating them. But everybody can agree upon this: The controversy did not involve any current players, and it has not derailed the program.
In the last two years winning has become as familiar and repetitive as Williams’s morning walks. North Carolina’s 2016–17 was typical: 27–7 regular season, outright ACC championship, No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Williams is famously superstitious—last week he declined to answer a question about what the Heels might do if they won the title because he didn’t want to jinx them. But occasionally this season, when the Tar Heels started to coast, he would say, “What’s the most fun you’ve ever had?” His players would answer that it was the Final Four last year. He would tell them to do what they could to get back. And once in a while he would mention the Villanova game. It was a subtle reminder of the thin margins they would face in March.
The first team to really understand what Williams meant was ... Villanova. On the tournament’s first Saturday, the defending champions (and No. 1 overall seed) were knocked out by eighth-seeded Wisconsin. The next day, North Carolina trailed Arkansas 65–60 with less than three minutes left. Berry stepped to the free throw line with a sprained right ankle. He sank both.
In a timeout with 2:47 remaining, assistant coach Hubert Davis (UNC class of ’92) reminded the Heels of their “86–80” drill in practice: three minutes left, starters lead or trail 86–80, finish the game. Davis told the team, “We do this every day!”
They did it that day, too, outscoring the Razorbacks 12–0 to end the game. The next weekend in Memphis, the Heels dispatched Butler in the Sweet 16 to set up the juiciest matchup of March, against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. At North Carolina’s practice the day before that game, Berry stepped on Meeks’s foot, spraining his right ankle again. The 6-foot point guard is such a physical force that senior guard Stilman White tells people, “I feel like he should play football instead of basketball.” He is so intense that his teammates are sometimes too intimidated to talk to him. (Pinson, his gregarious roommate, serves as a go-between.) Apparently Berry is so competitive that even his ankles compete with each other; early in the Kentucky game he sprained his left one. As he walked off the court, he looked at Williams and said, “No.”
Joel Berry, saying no? It was like seeing a sign outside a roadside church that said we’ve lost faith.
Berry tested the ankle. No quickly became yes. With the approval of the team’s trainers, Williams inserted him back in the game right away, rather than let the ankle swell up on the bench.
The rest of the Kentucky game was a testament to North Carolina’s resilience and Williams’s belief in his beliefs. The coach will not fall in love with the three-point shot, no matter how many statisticians write poems about it. Unless the situation specifically calls for a three-pointer, he rarely draws up a play where the first option is a three. He says, “Almost every play we have is designed to get a layup. But then there is always an option for a good shooter that could be a three-point shot.”
And while virtually everybody in the arena expected Pinson, North Carolina’s defensive stopper, to guard Kentucky scoring machine Malik Monk, Williams had other plans. He isn’t convinced that Pinson’s performance matches his reputation. He put Jackson on Monk.
The Tar Heels blew a seven-point lead in the final minute, culminating in a Monk three-pointer that tied the game at 73 with 7.2 seconds left, and that was an awfully logical time for the Heels to have visions of Jenkins, especially since he was sitting behind their bench. (Jenkins lived with North Carolina guard Nate Britt in high school and considers him a brother.)
But North Carolina just kept being Carolina. The Heels knew Williams never calls timeout in that situation, just as Dean Smith never called timeout in that situation; better to take advantage of the chaos. Pinson took the inbounds pass, drove down court, drew a double team and lateraled to former walk-on Luke Maye, the son of a former Tar Heels quarterback.
As a 12-year-old in 2009, Maye had traveled to Detroit with his parents to watch North Carolina win the national title, which he calls a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” He was about to create another. He hit the game-winning shot, sending North Carolina back to the Final Four. The next day Maye walked into his 8 a.m. management accounting class and got a standing ovation. And no, it wasn’t just because he showed up.
Scandals are supposed to wreck college programs, at least for a few years. North Carolina has thrived. There are many explanations for this, but maybe the simplest one goes back to a basketball camp Williams held a decade ago. When the coach announced the winners of the camp’s free-throw-shooting contest, some of the older kids did not clap to his satisfaction. He made them do it again. Sharon Jackson watched that and decided that her young son, Justin, would keep going back to the camp every year. This is how Roy Williams gets the players he wants before he knows he wants them.
As a fourth-grader in Ohio, Jackson would shovel snow off his family’s driveway, then shoot with gloves on. As a homeschooled kid in Texas, he would wake up at 4:15 a.m. so he could practice from 6 to 9 a.m. with a team of fellow homeschoolers. And last summer, when Jackson flirted with the NBA and learned how much he needed to improve to play in that league, he started working out multiple times a day.
Jackson returned to a Carolina program that looks a lot like Dean Smith’s ... but not exactly like Dean Smith’s. Williams does not cling to tradition as much as he sticks with what works. He thinks back, sometimes, to one of the last real conversations he had with Dean, before dementia took over and eventually conquered him. When Williams returned to coach North Carolina in 2003, Smith called him after every game, and once a week Smith would send Williams a note with three or four ideas for his team. But in that conversation Smith suggested a play, and Williams said, “Coach, I don’t think it will fit.”
Smith put his hand over his heart. Then he said, “You don’t know how good you’ve made me feel. I don’t want you to try something just because I mentioned it.”
When Williams questions himself, he wonders, What would Smith have done? (He quickly adds, “And I’m not trying to act like, What would Jesus do?”) But he also knows he has to make subtle adjustments without tearing the whole thing down.
No, ol’ Roy does not love new stats. But he is open to them. At halftime of every game, he looks at UNC’s points per possession. (He has his own formula for calculating it, so it doesn’t get skewed by all of his team’s offensive rebounds.) At halftime of the national semifinal against Oregon, North Carolina was averaging 0.89, right around Williams’s preferred baseline of 0.85. He told his assistants, “I feel like I’ve stolen something.”
In the second half the Tar Heels looked as if they would blow out Oregon. Meeks would score 25 points—inspired in part by director of player personnel Sean May, who led UNC to the 2005 title. May had looked at Oregon’s Jordan Bell before tip-off and said, “Kennedy, there is no way he should be able to stop you.”
But then, in the last few minutes, everything went wrong. Shots stopped falling. Jackson passed the ball to nobody, and it went out of bounds. Jackson’s girlfriend, Florida basketball player Brooke Copeland, sends Jackson texts during games, even though she knows he won’t see them until the end. She would send him 31 texts by the end of the game against the Ducks, telling a story that every North Carolina fan was living:
float game crazyyyyyy
CORNER THREEEEEE WHAT
free throws . . . ?!
I’m about to throw up
With 5.8 seconds left and North Carolina leading 77–76, Meeks missed two free throws. Many coaches would have pulled their players back in that situation, to shore up their defense rather than go for an offensive rebound, but Williams says, “I have never in my life taken my guys off the line. Never. Rebounding is a big part of the game.” He tells his players all the time, “The only guy who should think that free throw is going in is the shooter.” Pinson grabbed an offensive rebound away from Bell. Then Berry missed two free throws 1.8 seconds later, and Meeks grabbed another offensive rebound.
North Carolina had earned its spot in the national title game. Williams was asked, "Will you mention Villanova to your players?"
“We’re going to have to bring it up,” he said with a laugh, “because you guys are going to ask about the dadgum thing every time we turn around.”
In the end this is how haunted they weren’t. Hicks, who failed to block Jenkins’s championship-winning shot last year, sank the biggest shot of this season. After catching the ball at the foul line, Hicks took two power dribbles toward the right side of the basket and banked a shot over Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams to put North Carolina up 68–65 with 26 seconds left. And in the final moments, when a panicky team might have worried about, you know, a miracle or something, the Tar Heels were actually too sure of themselves. Before time ran out, Jackson started crying (“I couldn’t control it”) and Meeks went to hug Williams. The coach had to tell Meeks, “Finish the game!”
After it was over, Berry sat in the locker room with a few teammates and FaceTimed with New York Giants star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Berry had reached out to Beckham earlier this season, saying, “I’m not trying to be a groupie or anything. I just want you to know I look up to you a lot.” Beckham came to the Final Four to support Berry.
When JBII finished talking to OBJ, he sat in his chair with a net around his neck. Eight days earlier Berry had limped out of a locker room in Memphis in his undershirt and shorts, a towel around his waist. He would not participate in a full practice again, but he played 72 of a possible 80 minutes in the Final Four. He gave two reasons for his performance. One: “There’s no looking back.” The other: “I just have a high tolerance for pain.”
Those are the same two reasons why North Carolina won the national championship.