Things I’ll remember from covering UNC’s 2017 national championship

I’m back in Chapel Hill, and have been for a few days now, but parts of my mind are still in Arizona, in Glendale, where North Carolina won the national championship on Monday night with a 71-65 victory against Gonzaga.

So about the trip to Glendale, and UNC’s time in the Final Four … things I’ll remember:

1. In the final seconds, I’ll remember this:

Junior forward/guard Justin Jackson pumping his fists, screaming, while junior guard Joel Berry clutched the ball tightly, looking like a marathon runner about to cross a finish line. There were about seven seconds left then. I’ll remember senior forward Isaiah Hicks in the backcourt, both his hands on his head. It looked like he was crying. I’ll remember the moment of realization hitting the bench: The Tar Heels were going to win the national championship. So much pressure on this team, for months, and especially during the final month of the season, and then there was a release at University of Phoenix Stadium. It was finally over.

2. The plays that will endure from Glendale …

Here they are, for me: Against Oregon, it’s the two final rebounds – Theo Pinson, the junior forward/guard, off of senior forward Kennedy Meeks’ missed free throw, and then Meeks’ rebound off of Berry’s missed free throw. UNC hadn’t made a shot from the field in almost six minutes. Its lead had shrunk down to only one point. Oregon had every bit of momentum, and no one would have been surprised if the Ducks had made a game-winning shot in the final seconds … if only they could come up with a rebound.

But they didn’t. Against Gonzaga, more memorable Meeks’ moments late: His blocked shot, which led to Jackson’s breakaway dunk, and then the game-sealing steal moments later. Still, though, the play that sticks out to me the most is Hicks’ running one-hander that gave UNC a three-point lead with 26 seconds to play. Of all the players to make that shot, and to have that moment, Hicks was probably the most deserving, given his journey. It was a cathartic moment for him, and one that should endure. Another one: Jackson’s dunk. You knew that pretty much sealed it then.

3. The misses stick out, too …

UNC’s victories against Oregon and Gonzaga will be remembered for how the Tar Heels found a way late, twice (as they had throughout the tournament), but they won’t be remembered for their aesthetic quality. These were, by and large, ugly, ugly games.

Against Oregon, UNC shot 36.8 percent from the field – its worst shooting performance in an NCAA tournament victory since shooting 35.9 percent against Princeton in 1967. Until Monday, that is, when UNC shot 35.6 percent against Gonzaga. That was UNC’s worst in an NCAA tournament victory since it shot 31.8 percent against Michigan State in the 1957 national semifinal.

After the April 1 Oregon game, you’d have had to go back 50 years to find another NCAA tournament game that UNC won while shooting so poorly. Then, after the April 3 game against Gonzaga, you’d have had to go back 60 years. The Tar Heels won the national championship despite some of their worst shooting in a tournament victory in history.

Which means …

4. The Tar Heels’ defense was memorable, too.

For most of the season, especially during the second half of the season, coach Roy Williams and his players often answered the same old questions about their defense: Was it becoming more consistent, and more consistently good? Was it getting closer to the kind of defense UNC played throughout most of the 2016 NCAA tournament?

Williams’ answer, usually, was that his team was still searching for greater consistency, greater urgency. The Tar Heels found that during the NCAA tournament. Jackson became one of the team’s best defensive players, if not the best. And everyone else around him seemed to take the defensive intensity up a notch or two, if such a thing can be quantified.

It’s difficult to quantify effort. The numbers, though, prove UNC’s late-season defensive surge. UNC finished 11th nationally, according to kenpom.com, in defensive efficiency. The Tar Heels steadily ascended in that ranking throughout the tournament. Gonzaga’s least efficient offensive game of the season, meanwhile, came against UNC in the national championship game.

That’s how UNC survived its own poor shooting: It held Gonzaga to a slightly worse offensive efficiency than its own. In some ways, the national championship game was the inverse of the UNC-Kentucky game in December in Las Vegas. In that game, neither team could stop the other – and sometimes it looked like neither team cared all that much that it couldn’t stop the other.

In the championship game, UNC and Gonzaga struggled to score like they rarely had all season. It was Gonzaga’s worst offensive game of the season. It was UNC’s fifth-worst – and it lost the other four (at Indiana, at Miami, at Georgia Tech, at Virginia) on that list.

UNC’s defensive success didn’t begin and end with the national championship game, though. In the second round, the Tar Heels also held Arkansas to its worst offensive game of the season, according to kenpom.com.

In the South Regional final against UNC, Kentucky played its ninth-worst offensive game of the season. And Oregon played its seventh-worst offensive game of the season against the Tar Heels in the national semifinal game.

And then came that national championship game. It was UNC’s second-most defensive-oriented game of the season, according to kenpom.com (barely behind UNC’s defeat at Georgia Tech on Dec. 31) and, similar to the Arkansas game in the second round, UNC found a way.

And so …

5. I’ll remember the scenes after it ended …

In no particular order, those include:

The confetti taking a while to drop (word is perhaps they were waiting for Gonzaga to clear the court) … the bench clearing UNC’s reserves onto the court, forming a jubilant little bouncing mob … the confetti finally dropping, and the noise it made when it did (think the sound of machine guns, and perhaps they could come up with a more celebratory sound here) …

The net-cutting ceremony, and coach Williams not having trouble with the ladder and/or the scissors this time … John Swofford, the ACC Commissioner, walking around the court with a permanent smile … Williams and his grandchildren standing together watching One Shining Moment … Hicks wearing a net around his neck, placed there by Williams …

In the locker room I’ll remember the mobs and mobs of reporters around just about everyone, and Hubert Davis, the UNC assistant coach, sitting by himself, almost on the other side of the room, with a plate of pizza at his feet. It seemed he was just taking this all in … I’ll remember the managers celebrating, as happy as any of the players …

And C.B. McGrath, the UNC assistant coach who’s off to become the head coach at UNC-Wilmington, soaking in his last victory as a UNC assistant … I’ll remember Meeks looking composed, playing the role of the emotional rock – a different scene than the year before as UNC lost against Villanova …

I’ll remember Jackson talking about toughness, and Berry holding court, telling stories about his “believe” tattoo and the to-do list that he keeps, the one with “win a national championship” on it. Now he was planning to cross that off … And I’ll remember Nate Britt, the reserve senior guard, with a look of proud satisfaction. Now he had his national championship, just like his brother Kris Jenkins …

That’s just some of what I’ll remember.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer