Roy Williams and his team were despondent. There were tears, there was heartbreak and there was disbelief. It was April 4, 2016 and the North Carolina Tar Heels had just had their hearts ripped out on national television by Kris Jenkins and Villanova. Monday night, exactly 365 days later, they finally found redemption.
When Jenkins hit his buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Villanova a championship last year, it was a crushing defeat for the Tar Heels. That pain never subsided, if anything it grew stronger with age. They watched someone else celebrate what they thought should have been their moment. Jenkins’ shot wasn’t something out of a nightmare, it was real and so was the agony that accompanied it.
The Tar Heels spent the offseason thinking about that pain, never letting it be forgotten. They’ve openly discussed having just one goal: redemption. It became their mantra. They ate, slept, lived and breathed that word. Their season would have been a failure unless they finished what they couldn’t in 2016. They got that chance exactly 365 days later, and like everything else this North Carolina team went through, Monday night’s title game was a dogfight to the end.
Gonzaga didn’t just come to play in the national title game, the Bulldogs came to win. For much of the contest, it looked like they would do just that. The Zags led 35-32 at the half and had the Tar Heels on the ropes. While North Carolina controlled much of the game after the break, Mark Few’s bunch had some fight left. With 1:55 remaining in the game, Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss hit a jumper to give his team a 65-63 lead. One again, it looked like North Carolina might come up just short. But this team has grown up a lot over the last year, and in this ugly slug fest, the Tar Heels had the strength to punch back.
On the next possession, junior forward Justin Jackson — who had turned in an awful performance to that point — made an outstanding basket cut and finished at the rim through contact to tie the game. He made the ensuing free throw and the Tar Heels were back in front 66-65. After Williams-Goss missed a jumper, and a jump ball went Carolina’s way after a controversial missed call, Isaiah Hicks scored a huge bucket to give his team a 68-65 lead. Gonzaga called timeout and Roy Williams steadied his troops. Whatever he said worked.
When Gonzaga brought the ball down, Williams-Goss lost his footing on a shot attempt and Tar Heels big man Kennedy Meeks stepped up with a huge block. Joel Berry II corralled the ball and hit a streaking Jackson for a dunk to seal things. The Tar Heels finally knew they were going to take home the trophy that eluded them last year.
An entire season removed from heartbreak, North Carolina could finally experience the pure joy that must have come as a long-delayed relief. The monkey was off the team’s back, as the cathartic win bathed the team and the entire fan base in a feeling of bliss. The burden of last season’s crushing loss had finally been lifted.
North Carolina was an exceptional team this season. The pure talent Roy Williams’ teams usually boast wasn’t there, but this group had something else. This was a great college basketball team that performed at an elite level all year. This edition of the Tar Heels never lost back-to-back games and that was a testament to their maturity. Seniors like Meeks, Hicks and Nate Britt led, while juniors like Berry, Jackson and Theo Pinson also helped keep their teammates in check. This wasn’t a roster stacked with future lottery picks, it was a veteran team with discipline, leadership and a clear goal. Nothing short of a national title would have been sufficient.
Whatever you think of Roy Williams, you can’t question his coaching ability. He somehow healed his broken team, and himself, after that devastating loss on April 4 of last year. Then he refocused his players and molded them into a championship basketball team. It was a remarkable feat.
The Tar Heels and their coach felt they had questions to answer this year. The way the 2016 season ended was as big a blow as can be delivered in sports. Now North Carolina and Williams stand at the pinnacle of college basketball. Which is exactly where they planned to be after leaving the court in Houston 365 days ago.