It just so happened all five starters touched the ball in the final seconds, Isaiah Hicks with the biggest basket of his career on the final basket of his career, Kennedy Meeks blocking a shot, Joel Berry throwing the ball ahead to Justin Jackson for a dunk, Theo Pinson hurling the ball into the air as time expired.
It was like everyone had to get a piece of it, the redemption they sought for so long, finally at hand. North Carolina would not be denied this time, not by a buzzer-beater, not by anyone.
This group, this uncommon group of veteran players in an era of one-and-dones and transfers, took its place in not only North Carolina history but basketball history, losing the title game one year – in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable – only to come back a year later and finish the job.
They can now take credit for the Smith Center’s sixth NCAA banner – the third under Roy Williams in 14 years at North Carolina – after Monday’s 71-65 win over Gonzaga, the fulfillment finally washing away last year’s frustration.
“That’s cool,” Jackson said. “I think that’s a storybook ending to a journey we’ve had from last year until now. That’s unbelievable, and I can’t reiterate it enough and say how proud I am of everyone in this locker room.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy. It never was for this team in this tournament. If anything, it was a testament to how talented the Tar Heels truly were that they were able to win the title at something less than full speed, game after game.
In a choppy, whistle-happy game that saw every big man for both teams in foul trouble, North Carolina finally took control in the final 100 seconds. With 26 seconds to go and the Tar Heels up one, Hicks made the biggest shot of his career, a leaner in the lane despite all his struggles during the tournament. Meeks blocked Nigel Williams-Goss, the ball fell to Berry and he threw the ball the length of the court to Jackson for a dunk.
At that moment, the Tar Heels knew they had won, that they were 12 seconds away from a victory that would come after a Berry free throw, Pinson hurling the ball high into the air as time expired.
The Tar Heels never once in the tournament had all their parts clicking at once, and that was true Monday as well. Berry was back, finally looking free of the ankle issues that plagued him throughout the tournament, and Hicks finally had a few shots drop. But Jackson and Pinson struggled mightily, and Meeks was resolute defensively against Gonzaga’s gargantuan Przemek Karnowski and other bigs but couldn’t get anything going on offense.
And still, for all that, they join the great teams in North Carolina history, the sixth to win an NCAA title, the second championship by an ACC team in three years.
“All the former guys were saying, just pull up a chair at the table,” Pinson said. “We wanted to pull up a chair. I told Sean (May) after the game, clean my chair off and have it ready when we come up to the table.”
Win or lose against Gonzaga, the mere fact that the Tar Heels were able to make it back to the national championship game was a significant accomplishment of its own. Only eight teams have lost the title one year and come back to play for it the next.
This wasn’t easy, even if it looks like it now. Not only was this where the bar was set for this season – anything less than this would have been perceived, internally and externally, as failure, whether that’s fair or not – but the Tar Heels were thinking about this the entire time.
The odds against making it back to this point were astronomical, and the Tar Heels could have stumbled at any point along the way. At times – against Arkansas, against Kentucky, especially right down to the end against Oregon – it seemed like they were even trying to shake off the fate they felt they deserved, only to regroup and continue to march forward toward it.
“Last year happened for a reason. We got a second chance,” Hicks said. “It’s all about taking advantage of that. It doesn’t come often you’re in back-to-back national championship games. So why not win this one?”
Even Monday wasn’t North Carolina’s best game. They would not be denied. This team had an uncommon mission, a shared purpose. The title wrested from their hands once, they claimed it at the end, all five starters touching the ball in victory, in success, in destiny.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock