North Carolina’s Brice Johnson and Villanova’s Kris Jenkins each presented matchup issues for the other team. Johnson, a traditional 6-foot-10 power forward, thrived in the post. Jenkins, undersized at 6-foot-6, had the 3-point shooting ability that made him tough to guard on the perimeter.
In the end, it was Jenkins’ outside shooting that proved the difference, as his buzzer-beating 3 won the instant classic for Villanova, 77-74.
The biggest question facing Villanova entering the national title game was how to deal with North Carolina’s size inside. But as the Wildcats won their second national championship Monday night, their first since 1985, the box score made it look like they were the team with all the size.
After scoring 50 points in the paint in their 83-66 national semifinal win over Syracuse, the Tar Heels managed just 26 against undersized Villanova, which plays with four 3-point shooters on the floor at all times and just one true big. Second-chance points were supposed to be advantage UNC, too. The Tar Heels recorded just 11.
The Wildcats muscled their way to 32 points in the paint.
Toughness is a term thrown around so often that it loses its meaning, but in the case of the Wildcats, it rings true. A team with no elite individual defenders managed to take the nation’s best offense out of its rhythm. Because the Wildcats’ defense switches on nearly every ball screen, guards such as 6-foot-3, 195-pound Arcidiacono end up on guys such as 6-foot-11, 280-pound Joel James. Arcidiacono was crushed on a screen by James in the high post, but he held his feet and continued to battle with James in the post.
The biggest problem for the Tar Heels was that they couldn’t get the ball inside to their big men. Villanova defenders stayed in front of the Tar Heels’ big men coming off of passes, Berry said, denying entry passes. And UNC didn’t like its chances of going over top of the screens, as the Wildcats had defenders waiting to help on the backside.
“So it was just hard to get it in,” Berry said. “Sometimes it’s just like that.”
Johnson went long stretches of the second half without a shot attempt. He went to the free throw line with 15:40 on the clock and didn’t shoot again until there was 10:08 left in the game (a missed jumper). After that, it was the 5:10 mark when he had his next attempt (another missed jumper).
The Tar Heels shot 34.3 percent from the field in the second half, and that number was boosted by a 4-for-5 finish to the game. Up until that point, UNC was 8-for-30 (26 percent).
“We also missed a bunch of shots at the rim,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “I can think of a couple times where I got all the way in the paint and the ball rimmed out, or we got the ball exactly where we wanted to, we missed a tip-in. You can’t have those back. Those change the entire complexion of the game when you look at that last possession.”
To say UNC was out-toughed, though, would be inaccurate. Despite the offensive funk, Paige nearly willed the Tar Heels to a win, scoring the UNC’s final five points, including a 3 with five seconds left to tie the game. Once the Wildcats took a 10-point lead at 67-57 with 5:29 left in the game, UNC went on a 17-7 run to tie the game.
“So much of this year and last year, especially even more so this year, they were criticized for not being tough enough,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of his team. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had anybody make a tougher shot than Marcus Paige made.”
In the days leading up to the national championship game, the Tar Heels heard constantly about the toughness of Villanova, and how the Wildcats seemingly had the backing of all the ghosts of the old Big East, along with all the populace of the City of Brotherly Love.
“They’re Philly tough, whatever that means,” Berry said on the eve of the title championship game. “I think we’re tough, and I think I’m tough.”
All of the above was true, and no player outshined Berry in the first half. Berry opened the scoring with a 3, and then midway through the first half took UNC’s offensive into his own hands and scored 12 straight points. His 15 first-half points were more than he had scored in 30 full games this year.
In the second half, Berry stood under the basket and took a charge from Jenkins, temporarily halting the Villanova momentum with the Tar Heels trailing 60-55 with seven minutes left. With three minutes left, it was a Berry 3 that capped a 7-0 UNC run to help set up the dramatic finish.
Going into this season, the plan was for Berry and Paige to split time at point guard, but Berry’s play as the primary ball handler caused Roy Williams to go with him almost exclusively. In the Final Four against Syracuse, it was Berry’s penetration of the zone that allowed the Tar Heels to pull away. More often than not, Berry was passing out and setting up his teammates, as he posted 10 assists. Not since Phil Ford in 1977 had a UNC point guard turned in such a performance on the season’s final weekend.
The Villanova defense, with all of its switches, proved tougher to solve. So the Tar Heels had to rely far more on their guards than they would in an ideal situation.
Berry did finish with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting and a perfect 4-for-4 mark from deep. Paige led the Tar Heels with 21 points in a 7-for-17 effort. The Tar Heels backcourt nearly carried UNC to a win. But that was never the Tar Heels’ best offensive play. All year, they thrived on their advantage inside.
And when Villanova took that away, all UNC could do was watch as Jenkins’ final shot went through the air and swished through.