North Carolina finds redemption with national championship
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Kris who?
The shadow of 2016 is gone for the North Carolina Tar Heels, its place taken by the smiles and hugs and cut-down nets on a hard and gritty Monday night in Arizona. Nothing would haunt them this time. Neither their sub-arctic shooting – would you believe a national champion going 4-for-27 from the 3-point line or missing 11 free throws? -- nor Gonzaga’s relentless physical defense, nor the whimsy of fate and someone else’s famous shot. If it is redemption they sought, redemption they have. And they have it for keeps.
“I wanted to see this confetti fall on us,” Joel Berry II said when it was over Monday night, North Carolina finally pushing past Gonzaga 71-65 to win the national championship it so famously missed last April.
“We made it happen,” said Nate Britt, the adopted brother of the Villanova Wildcat who beat them that crushing night in Houston.
Time to dust off the cliché. What a difference a year makes. How could the Tar Heels forget the unforgettable? The Villanova players mobbing Kris Jenkins, the replays of his shot already beginning to bounce around the world, their own long walk to a shattered locker room.
But that was then. This is what atonement looked like now.
The North Carolina student section waving their signs: “Redemption Tour, 2017.”
Theo Pinson in his new white championship hat. “It’s the hat we were missing,” he said. “I told myself in the summer, fellas we’re missing one hat, this year we’re going to get it.
“I dreamed about it all week since we got here. This is exactly what I dreamed of. That feeling when the clock was going down, I didn’t dream of that one, though. That’s something you can’t even describe.”
Kennedy Meeks, describing the difference between 2016 and ’17. “This is a total 180.”
Over in the front row Monday night, sitting right behind the Tar Heels’ bench: Kris Jenkins, in a blue North Carolina shirt: “I’m just happy for them. I didn’t cry after we won, I cried a little bit after they won.”
Tar Heel Justin Jackson standing on the court with his net: “He can sit right there. Thankfully he wasn’t out there when we were up one.”
And in the middle of it all, incandescent in his happiness, Roy Williams.
A year ago, the question was what he could do to heal his shattered team. Now, it’s what do we say about the man with three national championships? Where now do we assign in the pantheon of his profession?
That’s as many titles as Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun, more than the likes of John Calipari or Henry Iba or Rick Pitino. More – and this is the one that shakes the ground in Chapel Hill -- than Dean Smith.
Smith was Williams’ mentor, his idol, the genius from where nearly all his basketball beliefs flow. They now have both coached in the same number of NCAA Tournaments – 27 each. Smith went to 11 Final Fours, this is Williams’ ninth. But when it comes to hardware, Williams is now ahead.
“They try to say it’s more than Dean Smith,” Williams said. “I’m not Dean Smith, never have been, never will be. He was so much better. But I have teams that have taken me and presented the greatest gift a coach can have; to see the looks on your guys’ faces when they’ve accomplished it.
“There’s nothing better than that.”
“At the end of the day, when it all shakes out,” Mark Few said, “he’ll be one of the Mount Rushmore types in college coaching.”
This one was work for Williams. Oh, was it work, to fashion a team that would take its fire from the past, but keep its attention on the future.
“I told them on August 22, the first day of class, we ran the 12-minute run, I’ve got them all in my house, I said, `In this room right here is a group that has a chance to win the national championship. But you have to pay the price.”’
By Monday, they had paid so much, but there was so much yet to go. Ahead was a 37-1 team that was nothing like the Gonzaga of old. This was no Cinderella. This was a big, physical, determined, accomplished, confident opponent. Williams would need to pull every string, push every button.
And he did. It was one of the coaching days of his life.
He happened to share an elevator in the morning with one of his big men, Isaiah Hicks, who has been struggling. “I said to him, `Your last high school game, you had 34 and 30. I would take that tonight. Big fella, you’ve got to play for us tonight.”
Hicks had 13 points, nine rebounds, and muscled inside for the game’s biggest basket that gave the Tar Heels a 68-65 lead with 26 seconds left.
“I put it in the locker room up on the board, one of the things we had to be tonight was tough enough.”
At halftime, with Gonzaga ahead 35-32 and the game having been every bit the fierce struggle he expected, he had another plea.
“He told us, `You have 20 minutes. If you want to be champion, it’s going to be a dogfight,’’’ Pinson said. “Those last 20 minutes I’ll never forget.”
With just over three minutes left, and the game and the season and redemption teetering on an edge, Williams had another message during a timeout.
“I told them if you had told me on October 3, the first day of practice, that we were going to be in that situation, we would have taken that, but we had to play our butts off the last three minutes.”
(Meanwhile, assistant coach Steve Robinson chimed in, according to Berry, “Remember that moment and how we felt last year. And we don’t want that to happen again.”)
Three times in their last possessions, with Gonzaga’s big defenders in massive foul trouble, Williams directed the ball go inside. The third time, to Hicks, it worked. All his buttons were working, at last.
Gonzaga had run out of time, and luck. Foul trouble. A missed call. Nigel Williams-Goss rolling his ankle that robbed him of any real chance to make a last-second play, a bad break that left him in tears.
“It was a slugfest out there,” Few said. “It’s two teams that desperately wanted to be crowned national champions.”
For Williams, for his team, it was as beautiful as ugly could be. Never mind neither team shot better than 36 percent. Too many big bodies for smooth offense. Too many flailing arms, too much defensive resolve.
Only the final score mattered. The Tar Heels learned that last year. So there was Williams, cutting down the net, turning to the crowd and saying, “Thank you.” Williams playfully throwing water on his players. Williams watching “One Shining Moment,” standing with his grandkids.
“The lows are so much lower than the highs are high,” he said of coaching. But this was hard to beat, for the man who has few peers. All he had to do was think back one year to understand. Redemption. That’s what it was.
Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 38 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
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