There’s no telling just how badly the North Carolina basketball team wanted to return to the NCAA championship game.
A year ago the Tar Heels lost a gut-wrenching 77-74 thriller to Villanova on a three-pointer at the buzzer by small forward Kris Jenkins.
All season long the Tar Heels stewed in that ugly memory and vowed to get back on the big stage and win it.
‘It’s a complete 180 from last year.’
– Isaiah Hicks, North Carolina Tar Heels, who tallied 13 points with nine rebounds.
That’s exactly what North Carolina did, downing Gonzaga 71-65 at University of Phoenix Stadium recently before 76,168 as the school claimed its sixth national title and third under head coach Roy Williams.
Close for much of the second half, the Tar Heels (26 of 73 for 35.6 percent) held a 66-65 lead with 1:25 left when junior small forward Justin Jackson scored and then sank a free throw.
It became 68-65 after senior power forward Isaiah Hicks scored on a twisting 10-footer with 26 seconds on the clock.
“It’s a complete 180 from last year,’’ said Hicks, who tallied 13 points with nine rebounds. “I feel like this is where, you know, what we worked for. It’s finally here.’’
An eye-popping block from senior center Kennedy Meeks (seven points with a game-best 10 rebounds) on an attempt from junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (team-high 15 points) was picked up by junior point guard Joel Berry II (game-high 22 points with a game co-best six assists).
Berry, who injured both ankles and was voted the Most Outstanding Player, then rifled a pass down the court to Jackson (16 points with four rebounds and three assists), who put in an emphatic dunk that made it 70-65.
Williams-Goss, who turned an ankle late in the contest and failed on his final two shots, managed to score nine points in the second half and finished with nine boards and six assists.
The Bulldogs (37-2) pulled ahead 35-32 at the half with sophomore point guard Josh Perkins tallying all of his 13 points.
Gonzaga (20 of 59 for 33.9 percent) led 19-14 with 10:39 left as Perkins nailed a trey and 28-21 on another three-pointer from Perkins with four minutes showing.
The Tar Heels (33-7) opened the second half by scoring the first eight points and moved ahead 40-35.
When senior shooting guard Jordan Matthews (six points) drilled a three-point shot it pushed the Bulldogs ahead 41-40 with 16 minutes left.
The Tar Heels reached the title game by edging Oregon 77-76 in one national semifinal as Meeks scored a game-best 25 points with a team-high 14 rebounds and Jackson adding 22 points.
Gonzaga earned a 77-73 win over South Carolina in the other semifinal match and was led by Williams-Goss with a game-best 23 points and a game-high six assists.
Rick Assad has written about sports for the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.