North Carolina was on a quest for redemption all season, and they found it Monday night in the national championship game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The Tar Heels lost last year’s national championship game against Villanova on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. But the Heels would not be denied this campaign, riding a veteran squad to a hard-fought 71-65 victory over Gonzaga at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Junior guard Joel Berry II led North Carolina with 22 points and Justin Jackson made clutch plays down the stretch to make sure the confetti was Carolina blue this year.
The Bulldogs led by three at the break thanks to 13 points from Josh Perkins, but North Carolina came out of the locker room with a renewed sense of purpose on the defensive end of the floor.
The Tar Heels started the second half on an 8-0 run that was punctuated by a mid-range jump shot from Berry II.
The Zags, however, would respond after a timeout with an 8-0 run of their own to take a three-point lead. Gonzaga star center Przemek Karnowski finally got on the board with this hoop during the run.
Foul trouble was the story of the second half as both teams got into the double-bonus with 12 minutes left in the game.
Gonzaga went scoreless for more than seven minutes from the field, but still only trailed the Tar Heels by two with six minutes to play.
After Nigel Williams-Goss hit a deep 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs a one-point lead, Berry II answered with a trey of his own to swing the lead back to the Tar Heels.
The game was tied with two minutes to play when Williams-Goss banked in a jump shot off the glass to give Gonzaga the lead. But North Carolina re-took the lead when Jackson finished a layup through contact for an old-fashioned 3-point play. He would hit the free throw to give the Tar Heels a one-point advantage.
North Carolina continued to lead by one with under a minute to go when forward Isaiah Hicks drove into the lane, hung in the air and banked in a shot to stretch the lead to three.
Gonzaga, however, couldn’t get a clutch bucket. Williams-Goss’ shot attempt was blocked, which led to a breakaway dunk for Jackson to seal the school’s sixth national title.
UNC became the first school since Kentucky in 1998 to win a title after losing in the national championship game the season before.
Thumbnail photo via Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports Images