Monday night’s national title game was expected to be a fast-paced, competitive showcase for North Carolina forward Justin Jackson and Gonzaga point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, two of the best players in college this season.
It was certainly competitive, but with both teams’ tough defenses locking up the main offensive options, the game turned into a foul-laden slog rather than a shootout. The Tar Heels were able to pin their opponent in the end, 71-65, winning the school’s sixth national title.
Fittingly it was empty possessions by Gonzaga in the final minute that put the game away, as North Carolina ended the game on a 9-2 run.
With Jackson struggling — he shot 6-19 and missed nine three-pointers — junior point guard Joel Berry II stepped up, scoring 22 and hitting the UNC’s only four three-point shots, and was named the tourney’s most outstanding player. Forward Isaiah Hicks added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
For North Carolina, it was a title to make up for a near-miss against Villanova in 2016, in which the Wildcats answered a last-second prayer with one of their own to win.
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who collected his third title in the 100th tournament game of his long career, said his players wanted redemption and were tough enough to take it. North Carolina had far more points in the paint than Gonzaga.
“Both teams played extremely hard,” Williams said. “I don’t think either team played very well.”
The Tar Heels got their first win this season while being out-rebounded, thanks to 14 turnovers by the Bulldogs. The two teams combined to shoot less than 35 percent from the field.
Gonzaga, hampered by both Williams-Goss’ 5-17 shooting and serious front-line foul trouble — wonder freshman Zach Collins fouled out with more than five minutes to go — the Bulldogs got an unexpected contribution from guard Josh Perkins, who scored 13 (all in the first half) after averaging five points in his earlier five tourney games.
Williams-Goss did get nine rebounds and six assists. Center Przemek Karnowski and forward Killian Tillie — pressed into service because of the foul trouble — both grabbed nine rebounds as well. The Bulldogs shot worse than their opponent for the first time all season, and went more than eight straight minutes in the second half without making a field goal.
For most of the first half of Monday’s game, Gonzaga — making the school’s first appearance in the Final Four — seemed to be playing to their strengths — and North Carolina’s.
The country’s best defensive team wasn’t just cutting off the Tar Heels’ fast break and forcing them into bad shots, they were also grabbing more rebounds than one of the best rebounding teams in the country. North Carolina had lost all three games in which they were out-rebounded this season.
But in the last four minutes of the half, North Carolina evened out both the rebound margin and the score, cutting Gonzaga’s game-high seven-point lead to three at the half. Good three-point shooting by the Bulldogs (5-9, vs. 2-12 for the Tar Heels) helped give them the lead, but turnovers kept them from getting away.
As halftime ended, North Carolina coach Williams said his players weren’t moving enough on offense, and were settling for the shots Gonzaga wanted them to take. The Tar Heels drove the ball inside far more in the second half, getting easier shots, building up the fouls on Gonzaga and gaining an edge they needed to win.