Back on the east coast it was near midnight, near the one-year anniversary, to the day, of North Carolina’s greatest heartbreak – one that united this team on a long-sought mission of redemption. It was near midnight there when the Tar Heels began celebrating here.
For the past year, they’d often spoken of their hope of reaching this point, the final Monday night of the college basketball season. Roy Williams, the UNC coach, had often spoken with tears in his eyes about how last season ended.
Now there were tears of a different kind after UNC’s 71-65 victory against Gonzaga on Monday night in the NCAA tournament national championship game. The Tar Heels won their sixth NCAA championship in school history and Williams his third, as a head coach.
Like so many times before during this long postseason run – like against Arkansas in the second round, and against Kentucky in the South Regional semifinal, and against Oregon here on Saturday night in a national semifinal – UNC survived. Imperiled late in all those victories, it survived.
“Our guys, I told them with three minutes to play – if you'd have told us the first day of practice that we would be in the championship game with that score with three minutes to play, everybody would have taken it,” Williams said. “But we had to play the last three minutes.”
At the media timeout with about three minutes remaining, UNC led 62-60. A minute later, though, the Tar Heels found themselves in the same position they were in against Arkansas, and against Kentucky and Oregon, too: needing to be nearly perfect in a game's most dramatic moments.
Gonzaga, the upstart mid-major major that was attempting to break through with its first national championship led by two points after Nigel Williams-Goss’ jumper from near the top of the key. As it turned out, that was the final time the Bulldogs scored.
UNC, so calm in these situations throughout the tournament, was at its best in the final minutes. It closed the game on an 8-0 run, taking the lead for good on Justin Jackson’s three-point play with one minute, 40 seconds remaining.
A little more than a minute later, after a defensive stop, Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, gave the Tar Heels a 68-65 lead with 22 seconds remaining. It was Hicks who blamed himself after UNC’s 77-74 loss against Villanova in the national championship game a season ago.
He was the closest player, after all, to Kris Jenkins, who made the winning 3-pointer as time expired, sending confetti raining down while UNC walked slowly off the court. Hicks had labored through UNC's past four games, failing to score in double figures in any of them.
On Monday night his running one-hander as the shot clock ran out, the one with 22 seconds remaining on the game clock, might have been the game's most important shot. Afterward Hicks wore one of the championship nets around his neck.
“I was trying,” he said. “That's all I can do, is try and leave everything out here.”
This time it was the Tar Heels' turn to savor the ending. And this time Hicks, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds while hampered by foul trouble, earned some measure of redemption.
All of his teammates did, too, as did Williams, even if he wasn’t necessarily seeking it. He said the defeat last season didn’t keep him up at night, that he didn’t dwell on it. But he allowed it to fuel him, as did his players.
“It does,” Williams said, asked if this helped soothe what happened a year ago. “But I was killed last year, and this doesn't make me go back and feel better about last year. I just feel for Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, Joel James, that they didn't get to experience the feeling that our kids now are feeling.”
Williams said he wrote a message to his team up on the white board inside the team's locker room. It was a message about the necessity of toughness. No one personified that characteristic more than Joel Berry, the junior point guard who earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
Hobbled by two injured ankles throughout the NCAA tournament, Berry finished with 22 points. He made four 3-pointers. He had the assist, after Kennedy Meeks’ blocked shot, that led to Justin Jackson’s game-sealing, breakaway dunk with 12 seconds remaining.
“I wanted to yell as loud as I possibly good,” Jackson, who finished with 16 points, said of that play. “But I had nothing in me. And coach was yelling at me to get back, and the tears started rolling. I mean, it was a whole bunch of different emotions.”
This wasn't a game that will be remembered for its artistic beauty. Both Williams and Mark Few, the Gonzaga coach, praised the effort of their teams. They didn't necessarily admire the execution – at least not offensively.
The pace of the game dragged, too, amid a torrent of whistles. The teams combined for 44 fouls – 22 on each team – and neither Gonzaga nor UNC shot better than 36 percent from the field. This was a game that was expected to be decided on the interior, with some of the best post players in the country.
Most all of them, though, found themselves on the bench for long stretches of the second half. UNC's Kennedy Meeks and Hicks both finished with four fouls. Gonzaga's Zach Collins, the 7-foot freshman, fouled out. His teammates Przemek Karnowski – who at 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds resembles a bearded brick wall – and Jonathan Williams both finished with three fouls.
An exercise in artistry on offense this was not. And it wasn't so much decided in the paint as it was by UNC's grit, again, in the final minutes. The Tar Heels didn't allow a point during the final one minute, 53 seconds. Jackson’s dunk in the final seconds gave UNC a 70-65 lead.
The Tar Heels could feel it then. Moments later a Gonzaga turnover all but sealed it.
Eight seconds later it was over. Berry and his teammates ran around the court, finding someone to hug. The confetti eventually fell, after an extended delay. The Tar Heels gathered on a stage and hoised the national championship trophy. They cut down the nets. They watched One Shining Moment.
Nobody could really find the words to describe it. They'd achieved the redemption they'd long sought.