Justin Jackson sat surrounded by cameras and microphones and celebratory teammates, the jubilation of North Carolina’s national championship victory still fresh, when he acknowledged that he’d been holding something inside of him for quite some time.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a while,” Jackson, the Tar Heels’ junior forward and ACC Player of the Year, said before beginning a short diatribe defending UNC’s toughness and moxie, traits that had been questioned for years.
When UNC ended the season with a 71-65 victory against Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament championship game on April 3, it completed a pre-written script of a story of redemption. It was, in some ways, the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay:
An experienced team of juniors and seniors reaches the national championship game after years of relative struggle. One of the team’s most beloved players makes a wild, improbable shot to tie the score in the final seconds but, moments later, the team loses on a 3-pointer as time expires.
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The next season that same team, again led by upperclassmen who returned after experiencing so much heartbreak the year before, returns to the same stage – the final Monday night. This time, it prevails in the final minute, and wins the national championship.
The buzzer sounds. The tears flow. The confetti falls. And there it is: redemption.
That was the easily-packaged, widely-distributed story of the 2016-17 Tar Heels. Three-hundred-and-sixty-four days after they endured one of the most excruciating defeats in college basketball history – the 77-74 loss against Villanova in the 2016 championship game – they played again for the title.
And this time, they won. They made the necessary plays in the final 30 seconds – Isaiah Hicks’ leaning one-hander, Kennedy Meeks’ block, Jackson’s dunk, Meeks’ steal – and, this time, they walked off the court not amid a debilitating defeat, but after celebrating UNC’s sixth NCAA championship.
Many who witnessed it live at University of Phoenix Stadium remained standing in front of their seats, their eyes on the scene in front of them: The Tar Heels cutting down the nets; coach Roy Williams, surrounded by his family and by his players, watching One Shining Moment; UNC basking in the glory.
Those watching somewhere on television might have heard how Jim Nantz described it when time ran out: “And this year, the confetti is going to fall for North Carolina – they’re not going to be denied this time!” And so a story of redemption reached its dramatic climax.
In the coming days, “redemption” came to define UNC’s victory. It appeared in newspaper headlines chronicling the moment, and there it was on the cover of Sports Illustrated: “Redeem Team.” The players themselves had often spoken of their quest for redemption, after all.
As much of a part of UNC’s story as redemption was, though, it wasn’t the only part. The Tar Heels’ march to the national championship, their third in Williams’ 14 seasons as head coach at his alma mater, was also a story of resilience – a story about moving through failure and becoming stronger for it.
UNC’s journey to the national championship began, in some ways, with the end of the 2015-16 season: with Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer at the buzzer, the shot that sent Villanova into delirium and UNC into despair. Williams told his players to use the memory, the pain, as fuel. And so they did.
In many other ways, the roots of the Tar Heels’ victory against Gonzaga were more than just one year old, just as the scars that inspired UNC, and fueled it, to use Williams’ word, existed long before Villanova inflicted the ultimate blow a little more than a year ago.
For two years, UNC was a team that couldn’t finish. That couldn’t win in the final minutes.
During the 2014-15 season, the Tar Heels made a habit of second-half failure. They lost at Louisville, in overtime, after leading by 18 points early in the second half. They lost at Duke, in overtime, after leading by 10 with less than 3½ minutes to play.
They lost at home against Duke after leading by seven with less than 15 minutes left. And lost against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament after leading by nine with less than 10 minutes to play. And lost against Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament after leading by seven with about 10 minutes remaining.
After all five of those defeats, Williams repeated a variation of what he’d been saying, by then, for years: that his players had to become tougher. It was a nebulous thing to quantify, the idea of toughness, and it didn’t always show up in a box score, either.
To Williams, though, it was obvious enough: The greater the pressure, the more his team faltered.
The next season, the one that ended with the heartbreak against Villanova, brought improvement but still the occasional relapse. There was the game at Notre Dame in early February 2016, when UNC led by 15 points late in the first half. The Tar Heels lost that lead and then the game.
Then there was the home game against Duke less than two weeks later. UNC led by eight with less than seven minutes remaining, only to lose when the Tar Heels failed to work the ball inside, to Brice Johnson, and when UNC’s defense went missing in the final minutes.
And then came the ultimate letdown: the defeat against Villanova.
The Tar Heels had just rallied to tie it in the final seconds on Marcus Paige’s wobbly, double-clutching 3-pointer, a shot for the ages. And then it was over after Johnson failed to pick up his man, leaving Jenkins open for a shot that will be replayed over and over again.
The defeat against Villanova was the eighth time in two seasons that UNC lost a game after leading by at least seven points in the second half. It was the kind of defeat the Tar Heels found themselves in position to replicate again and again during their run to the national championship one year later.
We got tougher. We were tougher this year than last year. We had more talent last year. And they were tough kids, don’t get me wrong.
Former UNC assistant coach C.B. McGrath
This time, though, it didn’t happen. In their quest for redemption, resiliency became the Tar Heels’ defining characteristic.
“Our guys were tough as nails,” C.B. McGrath, the UNC assistant coach who recently became the head coach at UNC-Wilmington, said after the victory against Gonzaga. “We got tougher. We were tougher this year than last year. We had more talent last year. And they were tough kids, don’t get me wrong.”
A new legacy
Ultimately, that will be the legacy of the 2016-17 Tar Heels: They became champions and achieved redemption because of their toughness, the one they’d lacked, in relative terms, for so long. The enduring images of this team will reflect that attribute.
They will include Joel Berry hobbling around on his sprained ankles and Meeks, whose jumping ability Williams and everyone questioned for years, leaping to make the game-clinching block and Jackson, who couldn’t make a shot in his final game, rising for a decisive dunk in the final seconds.
For years UNC watched other teams make those plays. Now it was the one making them.
After the national championship victory, McGrath and others paid homage to Paige and Johnson. They were gone but not forgotten, for they’d been part of this long transformation – the growth of a team that couldn’t win games late to one that, eventually, couldn’t lose.
“The only thing that could have made it better is if Brice and Marcus and Joel (James) were here,” said Hubert Davis, another one of Williams’ assistants, after national championship victory. “I wish they were here. I wish they could have felt this. Because this is their championship, too.”
Again and again throughout the NCAA tournament, UNC found a way to win amid circumstances that doomed it in previous years. It found a way to win after losing leads and after losing its way, only to find it again just in time.
Against Arkansas in the second round, the Tar Heels won after losing a 17-point first-half lead, and after trailing by five with three minutes remaining. Against Kentucky in the South Regional championship, UNC lost a seven-point lead in the final minute, only to win at the buzzer.
Against Oregon in a national semifinal, the Tar Heels led by 10 with eight minutes remaining. Then they led by one in the final seconds and missed four consecutive free throws, only to hold on, anyway, thanks to their uncanny ability to rebound their own misses.
Then came the final Monday night. A national championship. Jackson had been holding it in long enough.
“There’s been a whole lot of people that have doubted us, and said that we’re not tough enough and defensively we don’t have what it takes to be at that point at the end of the season,” he said. “And right now, I’m trying to figure out what they’re saying, still – the fact that we’re national champions.
“And if they’re still going to say stuff, then whatever it might be. But – for us we knew. We had confidence in ourselves that we could come down the stretch to make some big plays.”
“Nothing to cry about”
Resilience came to define Jackson and his teammates during the final three weeks of the season. Jackson, for one, played through the occasional shooting slump – he missed all nine of his 3-point attempts against Gonzaga – to lead his team defensively, and in scoring, as he did in the regular season.
Berry, the junior point guard, played through the pain of two sprained ankles. Theo Pinson, the junior forward, played, period, after separate foot injuries placed his season in doubt. Isaiah Hicks played through the most difficult stretch of his senior season, only to score perhaps the most important points of the national championship game – the ones that gave UNC its late three-point lead.
And Meeks, the senior forward, played through years of injuries, years of questions about his conditioning and weight, only to be at his best in his final two college games: the 25 points and 14 rebounds against Oregon; the defense and 10 rebounds and late, game-sealing plays against Gonzaga.
A year earlier, Meeks had broken down and cried after the defeat against Villanova. It had been a raw, emotional moment, a release of the pain. Now, after the Tar Heels won the national championship, Meeks was a portrait of composure. There were some tears, but not from him.
“I don’t have nothing to cry about,” he said with a smile, his head high, after the victory.
It had been a long road to redemption, one the Tar Heels navigated with resilience.