The realization that North Carolina had actually done it was still settling inside the Tar Heels locker room, where players wore national championship hats with pieces of the net sticking out of them, and where Hubert Davis, the Tar Heels' assistant coach, sat alone by himself on the other side of the room, taking this all in.
“I don't even know what to say,” Davis said, more than once, while he shook his head, his eyes wide, a stunned look that, after a moment, turned into a laugh that suggested he really didn’t have the words. At his feet there was a plate with some half-eaten pizza still waiting – the dinner of champions, apparently. “It's unbelievable. I just can't believe what just happened.”
It wasn't necessarily that North Carolina, with a 71-65 victory against Gonzaga here on Monday night, had won the national championship. That, after all, is what this team had set out to do all along, ever since it ended last season with one of the most excruciating defeats in college basketball history – if not the most excruciating.
No, that wasn't the unbelievable part. The unbelievable part was the how: How the Tar Heels managed to win their sixth NCAA championship despite shooting 35.6 percent from the field, and despite their best player missing all nine of his 3-point attempts, and despite faltering at the free throw line, again, and despite more late drama that will undoubtedly leave coach Roy Williams’ hair a little whiter.
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And yet, despite all of it, here was Williams on Monday night, telling the story over and over of what he told his players during a timeout with about three minutes remaining. Williams recited the tale on the court, the celebratory confetti at his feet. He told the story in the press conference. Chances are, he might be telling it for a long time to come, during summer golf rounds and hangouts with his buddies -- to future teams
It wasn't that Williams found his words to be omnipotent. Or even all that wise.
It was what came after the words. How his team responded, once again.
“I said if you would have told us that we were going to be in this situation the first day of school, meeting at my house, we would have all taken it,” Williams said. “And that's all Roy Williams did. I didn't do one other dadgum thing. But these guys made big-time plays.”
At that timeout UNC (33-7) led by two points. Soon, with less than two minutes remaining, it trailed by two.
And so here UNC was, again, its season at a crossroads. UNC's oldest players, the juniors and seniors most responsible for leading the team to this moment, can all remember a time when they failed to finish games, and when that failure was perhaps UNC's defining characteristic. It was that way two seasons ago.
It was that way, at times, last season. And what now? What to say about the Tar Heels now, after they won games with final-minute fortitude against Arkansas and against Kentucky and against Oregon and then, at last, against Gonzaga on Monday night, the stakes as high as they could possibly be.
“Our guys were tough as nails,” C.B. McGrath, UNC's longtime assistant coach, said inside the locker room on Monday night. “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.
“But just, we didn't play good in the NCAA tournament. Or, we didn't play our best.”
McGrath wasn't talking about last year's tournament. He was talking about this one.
One of the college basketball's oldest cliches is that teams have to be at their best to win in March. The Tar Heels proved that to be a myth, at least offensively, during this, perhaps the most improbable of any of their six NCAA tournament championships.
This wasn't the relative joyride of 2009, when UNC won every tournament game by double digits. This wasn't 2005, or 1993, or 1982, when the Tar Heels could often simply out-talent teams. No, this was a nonstop stress test for Williams, his assistants and their players.
Outside of a 39-point victory against Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the closest UNC came to playing a complete NCAA tournament game came during a 92-80 victory against Butler in the South Regional semifinal. And even then, UNC labored in the second half.
Comparatively, though, it was a relative masterpiece. Against Arkansas in the second round, UNC surrendered a 17-point first-half lead and trailed by five with three minutes left, before prevailing. Against Kentucky, UNC surrendered a seven-point lead with 54 seconds lef, before Luke Maye's jumper won it in the final second.
Against Oregon, the Tar Heels nearly surrendered an six-point lead in the final minute, only to hold on, literally, during the 5.8 seconds when they twice managed to rebound free throws that bounced off of the rim. Now came more theatrics on Monday night, and on the grandest of stages.
Gonzaga (37-2) took its two-point lead with one-minute, 53 seconds remaining on Nigel Williams-Goss' jump shot from near the top of the key. For years, more than a decade ago, Gonzaga had been national darlings, the quaint upstart mid-major. There was nothing quaint or “mid” about it on Monday night.
Gonzaga arrived here having lost but one game. It arrived with a frontcourt every bit as formidable as UNC's, if not more so. It arrived with the 7-foot, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski, who might resemble a brick wall if brick walls could grow long, menacing beards.
As it turned out, though, Williams-Goss' jumper gave the Bulldogs their final points. Justin Jackson, the UNC junior forward who said on Monday night that he shot “like I had never shot a shot in a gym,” scored quickly on the other side. Fouled, he made the free throw. UNC's lead was one with one minute, 40 seconds left.
Then the Tar Heels forced a defensive stop. They worked the shot clock down. The ball found its way to Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward who’d missed 11 of his 12 attempts against Oregon, a performance that called into question his confidence, his mental state.
“I got questioned yesterday about my confidence, was I frustrated,” said Hicks, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds on Monday. “I just (said), no. I felt good. … I feel like my confidence wasn't down. The biggest thing was, was just to try.”
So he tried. He drove the lane, the shot clock running down, and made a running one-hander. UNC led by three. Twenty-six seconds remaining. And then: another defensive stop. A Kennedy Meeks block, followed by Joel Berry's recovery, and the pass ahead to Jackson.
His breakaway dunk sent the UNC crowd here into a frenzy. The Tar Heels led by five with 12 seconds remaining. They could feel it now. Everyone could feel it. In the span of 15 seconds, UNC’s lead grew from one point to five and “all of a sudden,” Williams said, “the game was over with.”
“I wanted to yell as loud as I possibly good,” Jackson said of his dunk. “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.”
Three seconds later Gonzaga committed a turnover – Meeks with a steal. The Bulldogs fouled Berry, who in many ways has personified his team's toughness and tenacity. For two weeks now, he'd been playing on two bad ankles. He'd been hobbled.
He finished with 22 points on Monday, and earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors. That means his No. 2 jersey will be honored in the Smith Center rafters. With seven seconds remaining, he just wanted to make a free throw without crying. UNC called a 30-second timeout. Berry tried to compose himself.
“And I went over there to the side, and I told coach, I said, look – I needed that,” Berry said. “I'm about lose it. And he was like, don't lose it yet. Knock these free throws in, and we can celebrate.
“And I was like, all right, coach. I went up there and I missed the first one, and I was like, 'Oh, man.' And then I knocked in the second one, and I was running down the court and I was crying.”
Then it was over. The Tar Heels won a national championship despite making 35.6 percent of their shots from the field, and despite making four of their 27 3-point attempts, and despite missing 11 of its 26 free throws. Jackson missed all nine of his 3-point attempts. Berry missed nine of his 13.
In some ways, the numbers defied logic. That was nothing new, though.
The way UNC won in recent weeks often did defy logica: scoring the final 12 points against Arkansas after appearing lifeless before, and winning with Maye's basketball heroics in Memphis, Tenn., and then missing four consecutive free throws in the final six seconds against Oregon, only to secure the two available rebounds to thwart the Ducks' hopes.
And now add Monday to the list: the Tar Heels finding a way despite never finding their shot.
“It was somebody different all the time,” said McGrath, who is soon to become the head coach at UNC-Wilmington. “Isaiah wasn't playing good, and all of a sudden he makes the biggest shot in the game. And then Kennedy gets a block and then gets a steal.
“I mean, you never knew who was going to make the big play. “But somebody was going to step up and do it.”
Entering the NCAA tournament, and entering Monday night, the Tar Heels spent no shortage of time revisiting the end of last season – the debilitating defeat against Villanova in the national championship game. They spoke about how much that drove them, the idea of redemption.
That was only part of it. The motivation of UNC's veterans extended well beyond the end of last season. It had roots in every time they heard someone call them soft, every time Williams questioned their toughness, every time they allowed a lead to slip away, a victory to fall from their grasp.
That used to happen often. It nearly happened four times in this tournament, but never did.
“I've been waiting for this for a while,” said Jackson, who finished with 16 points despite his shooting woes. “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.
“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.
“We knew what it took to get to that point. Now we just had to change the result. And thank goodness.”
On the other side of the room Hicks was thinking the same thing.
“You can't call a national champion soft,” he said.
He was wearing a net around his neck, one of the ones the Tar Heels cut down from both rims here at University of Phoenix Stadium. Berry, meanwhile, wore the other one around his neck. Both of them, at times, were attempting to describe a feeling that they said they couldn't describe.
It was something similar a year ago, the Tar Heels attempting to find the words then, too. After the defeat against Villanova in the national championship game, Williams and his staff sat by themselves outside of the locker room. They didn't move. They didn't say anything. They just sat there, silent.
The victory on Monday wouldn't make what had happened a year earlier any easier, Williams said. Instead it left Williams and his players with a sense of longing, again, while they thought about Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and Joel James, the team’s departed seniors.
“The only thing that could have made it better,” Davis said, “is if Brice and Marcus and Joel were here. I wish they were here. I wish they could have felt this. Because this is their championship, too.”
Davis continued to sit alone, taking in the scene. McGrath walked around the locker room, appearing in a happy daze. Eventually Williams came back in to rejoin his players. Each passing minute, the victory seemed to set in more. Players posed with pictures with the trophy.
Back home, on the east coast, it was past midnight, the arrival of the one-year anniversary, to the day, of the heartbreak against Villanova. Here in Glendale there was still plenty of night left. The celebration was just beginning.