North Carolina Bests Gonzaga, Ends Redemption Tour With a National Title

Jacob Hamburger, Business Editor

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Basketball is an interesting game. It can take on so many different forms in terms of pace and physicality. Depending on the team, games can vary from high-scoring offensive exhibitions to defensive stalemates. While the former may catch the attention of more viewers, the latter version prevailed on Tuesday night.

But in order to truly understand Tuesday’s game, and what was at stake, it is essential to know the key storylines heading into it.

Gonzaga was out to prove its status as a national powerhouse to the basketball world. A rising power, Gonzaga has been constantly questioned. Despite having a stellar record (37-2 this season), the Bulldogs have frequently faced criticism for being part of a non-major conference (the West Coast Conference), where they handily defeat substandard competition. This was their first national championship appearance, and they hoped to validate their status to the basketball world with a victory.

North Carolina’s story could not be any more different. Considered one of, if not the greatest collegiate basketball powerhouse, UNC’s Final Four berth this year marked the 20th time they had achieved such a feat in their history, which ranks the highest among all schools. This national championship was not about proving their worth; it was about redemption. This year’s appearance in the national title game was UNC’s second in the past two seasons. Last year’s appearance, however, did not end with a title. Instead, North Carolina suffered one of the most heartbreaking finals losses in history, losing on a stunning, buzzer-beater three-pointer from Villanova’s Kris Jenkins. From that loss to the game last night, the Tar Heels were determined to get back to the title game and this time, not let it slip from their grasp.

UNC wanted another shot at the title, and when they got it this year, they refused to squander it. North Carolina’s 71-65 triumph over Gonzaga in the national title game Tuesday certainly wasn’t pretty. It was a physical, brutal game, with each team trying to use its physical strengths to its advantage.

But the game did not slow to a free-throw shooting standstill at first. In the first half, the game was fast-paced, as each team sprinted up and down the floor. It closed with Gonzaga leading, 35-32.

The second half began in the same way the first ended. North Carolina came out firing, going on an 8-0 run to begin the half and seize the lead for the first time since they led 8-7. Shortly thereafter, the game slowed, as physical play near the basket generated more fouls. Possession after possession, players would trudge to the line, netting foul shots and turning the national championship into a game of HORSE.

Fouls would play a critical part in the outcome of the game. By the final whistle, 44 fouls had been called altogether, split evenly between the two teams. Further, many players approached five fouls early on in the half, restricting the amount of time they could play as their coaches feared they would foul out. The effect of fouls was greatest on Gonzaga forward Zach Collins, who fouled out in the second half. An integral part of the Bulldogs’ lineup, Collins got into foul trouble early, limiting him to only 14 minutes of playing time in the biggest game of his career. Another one of Gonzaga’s star players, Przemek Karnowski, also did not play for large parts of the second half after accumulating 4 fouls. Karnowski, normally an important cog in Gonzaga’s offense, failed to produce at his normal rate, going a measly 1 of 8 from the field but using his opportunities at the foul line to finish with 9 points.

Gonzaga’s foul trouble only benefited the Tar Heels, who would not have a single player foul out for the duration of the game. North Carolina was out-rebounded 49-46 by Gonzaga, a largely unpredictable result considering how effective the Tar Heels had been all year at rebounding both offensively and defensively. In fact, North Carolina had lost every game prior to Tuesday’s when they had been out-rebounded.

The game was considered, overall, to be an incredibly sloppy affair offensively between two of the nation’s best teams. Each team barely made a third of its shots, as Gonzaga finished with a 33.6% field goal percentage while North Carolina sank 35.6% of their attempts. Gonzaga would finish with a higher shooting percentage (42.1%) from behind the arc than in the field, while North Carolina would not, shooting an abysmal 14.8% (4-27) from three-point range. The poor offensive showing serves mainly as a testament to each team’s defensive prowess, as they were simply unwilling to concede easy baskets throughout the game. It truly was a back-and-forth contest until Kennedy Meeks blocked Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss’ final shot, which would have pulled the Bulldogs within one of the Heels, in the final seconds of the game to clinch Carolina’s victory.

The gritty nature of the game is embodied within the game’s Most Valuable Player, point guard Joel Berry II of North Carolina. Suffering ankle issues throughout the tournament, as he played on two sprained ankles at some point, Berry II played through this adversity, finishing with 22 points and 6 assists in the game to lead all players. It was with determination and persistence like Berry’s that enabled the Tar Heels to win such a physical affair.

As soon as Jenkins’ shot swished through the hoop last year, the Tar Heels wanted to avenge their loss. With yesterday’s win, they did just that. The redemption tour is over, and North Carolina could not have ended it in a better fashion. Despite losing, Gonzaga proved to the basketball world that this is not the last they’ll hear of them. This year, the Heels would not take no for an answer after returning to the big stage, laying waste to Gonzaga like they had to teams throughout March: with hard work, guts, and plenty of persistence.