North Carolina shouldn’t have won the national championship. A poor shooting performance, a no-show by Justin Jackson and foul trouble on Gonzaga’s best player would have done in UNC on most nights. The Bulldogs couldn’t take advantage.
North Carolina shouldn’t have even been in the national championship; the Heels should have lost to Oregon in their Final Four game. A poor shooting performance, a no-show by the hobbled Joel Berry II and four missed three throws would have done in UNC on most nights. The Ducks failed to capitalize.
North Carolina shouldn’t have even been in the Sweet 16; Roy Williams’ team was on the ropes against Arkansas in the second round and the Razorbacks had opportunities to land the knockout punch. A poor stretch of shooting, a blown 17-point lead and tight play would have done in UNC on most nights. Arkansas — well, you get the picture.
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That’s not to devalue or invalidate the national championship the Tar Heels rightfully won on Monday night in an unsightly title game marred by whistle-happy refs and a choppy pace. Not at all. Teams don’t win the NCAA tournament as much as they survive it and Roy Williams’ team survived the longest, outpacing the other 67 teams that saw their names pop up in the bracket on a Sunday night three weeks ago and dreamt of a championship, no matter how far-fetched it may have been.
Looking back, that second rounder against Arkansas – a nine-loss team from the SEC – was the Heels’ biggest Houdini act. After taking advantage of a soft Razorbacks defense, Carolina went to sleep for exactly one half of basketball (from the three-minute mark of the first half to the three-minute mark of the second half) and let Arkansas go on a staggering 48-28 run to take a five-point lead with 3:31 left. Then their tank went empty. Though Arkansas made a defensive stop up five points, they couldn’t get a rebound (a theme throughout this tournament in UNC games). The Razorbacks also had a wide-open look to go up six points, another wide-open look to retake a two-point lead and two free throws that would have cut the deficit to one point with 25 seconds left. They missed every chance.
The Oregon game was so harrowing it created a tragic figure on a national scale in Jordan Bell, the dominant Oregon forward who powered the team past Kansas but missed two easy rebounds off free throws in the final seconds, each of which would have given the Ducks a chance to take the lead and float into the national championship. Not that it should have come to that. Oregon’s two offensive stars, Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey, combined to shoot 5-22 (23%) from the floor. Seemingly every time Carolina missed a layup (Theo Pinson went up too hard multiple times), Oregon did one better on the other end by either jacking up a shot too quickly or trying to challenge Carolina’s big men inside the paint.
As for Gonzaga; while the refs will be an easy scapegoat for fans, Bulldog players weren’t crying because Zach Collins got a fourth foul early in the second half. (And, to a man, Gonzaga refused to blame the officials for the loss. The team was as classy in defeat as Oregon.) No, they know they left a title out on the court in Phoenix. For as great as Gonzaga was all tournament, its stars missed a half-dozen easy shots from inside three feet, its vaunted defense let Carolina back in the game late in the first half and the Bulldogs couldn’t make a shot when it mattered, getting outscored 9-2 over the final 2:30 minutes of the game.
Three games, three situations in which North Carolina clung to life.
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Then there’s shiniest moment from Carolina’s revenge title — Luke Maye’s go-ahead shot with 0.3 seconds left in the Sweet 16 game against Kentucky. It broke the tie Malik Monk had forced with his three pointer in the final 10 seconds and will be the defining replay of this championship — the one that’ll be shown every year as an example of March’s madness. (There’s a reason you only see clips of Christian Laettner’s shot in the regional final and never of Duke beating Michigan in the ’92 title game.)
A virtual buzzer beater to knock off Kentucky and get to the Final Four? That seems like the ultimate in survival, except it’s an entirely different circumstance. North Carolina merely avoided losing to Arkansas, Oregon and Gonzaga. Against Kentucky, and in a Sweet 16 rout of Butler, the Tar Heels went out, seized an opportunity and advanced in the bracket.