GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It’s OK, Carolina, you can open your eyes.
An unwatchable game turned into a beautiful night for the Tar Heels, who turned a free-throw contest into a championship they’ve been waiting an entire year to celebrate.
Justin Jackson delivered the go-ahead 3-point play with 1:40 left Monday and North Carolina pulled away for a 71-65 win that washed away a year’s worth of heartache.
It was, in North Carolina’s words, a redemption tour -- filled with extra time on the practice court and the weight room, all fueled by a devastating loss in last year’s title game on Kris Jenkins’ 3-point dagger at the buzzer for Villanova.
“I wanted to see this confetti fall on us and we’re the winners,” said Carolina’s Joel Berry II, who led the Heels with 22 points. “We came out here and we competed. It came down to the last second, but we’re national champs now.”
Berry, along with most of Roy Williams’ players, returned for another run. To say everything went right for them at this Final Four would not be the truth.
The Tar Heels (33-7) followed a terrible shooting night in the semifinal with an equally ice-cold performance in the final - going 4 for 27 from 3-point land and 26 for 73 overall.
Gonzaga, helped by 8 straight points from Nigel Williams-Goss, took a 2-point lead with 1:52 left, but the next possession was the game-changer.
Jackson took a zinger of a pass under the basket from Theo Pinson and converted the shot, then the ensuing free throw to take the lead for good. Moments later, Williams-Goss twisted his right ankle and could not elevate for a jumper that would’ve given the Bulldogs the lead.
Isaiah Hicks made a basket to push the lead to 3, then Kennedy Meeks, in foul trouble all night, blocked Williams-Goss’ shot and Jackson got a slam on the other end to put some icing on title No. 6 for the Tar Heels. Williams got his third title, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Mike Krzyzewski.
“I think of Coach Smith, there’s no question,” Williams said. “I don’t think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him. But we got three because I’ve got these guys with me and that’s all I care about right now -- my guys.”
Berry recovered from ankle injuries to lead the Tar Heels, but needed 19 shots for his 22 points. Jackson had 16 on a 6-for-19 night and, overall, the Tar Heels actually shot a percentage point worse than they did in Saturday night’s win over Oregon.
Thank goodness for free throws. They went 15 for 26 from the line and, in many corners, this game will be remembered for these three men: Michael Stephens, Verne Harris and Mike Eades, the referees who called 27 fouls in the second half, completely busted up the flow of the game and sent Meeks, Gonzaga’s 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins and a host of others to the bench in foul trouble.
Most bizarre sequence: With 8:02 left, Berry got called for a foul for (maybe) making contact with Karnowski and stripping the ball from the big man’s hands. But as Karnowski was flailing after the ball, he grabbed Berry around the neck and, after a long delay, got called for a flagrant foul of his own.
That resulted in four straight free throws, a 52-all tie and booing from every corner of the massive Phoenix University Stadium.
Zags coach Mark Few handled it with class, calling the refs “three of the best officials in the entire country.”
He might have wanted further review on the scrum with 50 seconds left. The refs were taking heat on social media for calling a held ball, which gave possession to the Tar Heels, on a pile-up underneath the Carolina basket. It set up the Hicks layup to put Carolina ahead by three. One problem: Meeks’ hand was out of bounds.
“That was probably on me,” Few said. “From my angle, it didn’t look like an out of bounds situation or I would have called a review. That’s tough to hear.”
The Bulldogs, the Cinderella-turned-Godzilla team from the small school in the Northwest, tried to keep the big picture in mind. Twenty years ago, this looked virtually impossible. With less than 2 minutes left, they had the lead in the national title game.
“We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn’t break,” Johnathan Williams said.
And North Carolina got over a hump that, at times this season, felt like a mountain.
“They wanted redemption,” Williams said. “I put it on the locker room up on the board -- one of the things we had to be tonight was tough enough. I think this group was tough enough tonight.”