By Mary Cunningham
For a year all these North Carolina players wanted was a chance to redeem themselves, an opportunity to erase the heartbreak from last April’s national championship game loss to Villanova.
They wanted a title of their own.
And they got that, beating Gonzaga, 71-65, in last night’s national championship game here at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Tar Heels became just the fourth team to come back from losing the national championship the year before to go on and win it the following year.
It is the third national championship for North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who has won all three with the Tar Heels and since 2005. It also gives him one more than his mentor, the late Dean Smith.
North Carolina’s big men came up in the clutch. With Gonzaga trailing by three and looking to tie, Kennedy Meeks (above) blocked a determined Nigel Williams-Goss and the play led to a breakaway and game-securing dunk.
And Isaiah Hicks, who struggled to find an offensive rhythm in previous tournament games, came up with a huge bucket with 22 second remaining. His 13 points and nine rebounds helped offset both teams’ big men hampered by foul trouble, with the ‘Zags’ Zach Collins fouling out at the 5:03 minute mark.
The Tar Heels were plagued by poor shooting throughout much of the first half, shooting just 30.6% from the field and a 15.4% from beyond the arc. The two players who carried North Carolina to the title game — Meeks and Justin Jackson — combined to score just 10 points prior to halftime.
But, much like their national semifinal win over Oregon, weathering the opponent’s storm proved to be more important than just about anything else. North Carolina, which trailed by three at the break, burst into the second half with an 8-0 run that forced Gonzaga coach Mark Few to call a timeout — which, in turn, prompted a roar from the North Carolina bench as the team gathered for a huddle.
Gonzaga’s strength — its enormity in the post — became problematic early in the second half as well, with all three of its bigs finding themselves in serious foul trouble, though some played through it.
The second half featured two teams teetering back and forth as if on a seesaw, a tight, nerve-wracking game befitting the grandest of the sport’s stages.