GLENDALE, ARIZ. — Choking back tears, Nigel Williams-Goss said, “We did a lot of things people weren’t expecting us to do … We were right there, capable of winning the national championship.”
Well, no. The “right there” part is accurate, but the “capable of winning the national championship” is wrong. Gonzaga wasn’t as good as advertised by its ardent advocates. If it had been, it would be national champions. Because North Carolina played about as badly as North Carolina ever does and still won.
Yes, the Zags were hurt by some iffy whistles: The fourth foul on Zach Collins was a figment of a zebra’s fevered imagination, and the tie-up with 49.1 seconds left — the play that allowed Carolina, due to alternating possession, to keep the ball for what would become Isaiah Hicks’ vital banker — should have been Gonzaga’s ball. (Kennedy Meeks’ hand was out of bounds.) But here’s the deal:
On a night when Justin Jackson misses 13 of 19 shots and all nine of his 3-pointers and the sleek Tar Heels hit but 35.6 percent, an opponent of championship caliber has to win. Gonzaga could not. Gonzaga gave it a run but fell short, and not by the bounce of a ball or the vagaries of officiating. It fell short because it wasn’t good enough.
The Zags made eight second-half baskets with a championship on the line. One of those was a banked Johnathan Williams 3-pointer from the corner. (Williams could try 100 more times and not bank that shot home.) In one numbing stretch Gonzaga went more than seven minutes without a basket and still found itself tied.
At the end, class finally — finally! — told. Jackson converted a three-point play to put his team ahead. Hicks scored in the lane. Kennedy Meeks blocked Williams-Goss’ ill-chosen driving shot. Jackson dunked at the other end. “A great ballgame,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few called it, lying through his teeth.
Credit Gonzaga for making Carolina sweat for its title, but there was no comparison in talent. The massive Polish center Przemek Karnowski was overmatched by the Tar Heels’ big men. His final line: Eight shots, seven misses, four fouls, nine rebounds, four turnovers. That huff-and-puff stuff that worked in the West Coast Conference didn’t cut it against the regular-season champ of a Power 5 league.
Williams-Goss needed 17 shots to scored 15 points. Collins, a presumptive NBA lottery pick, fouled out in 14 minutes. (This motley game saw 46 baskets, 44 fouls.) Gonzaga negotiated a tournament path that included Northwestern, West Virginia, Xavier and South Carolina — only one of those was better than a No. 7 seed — and actually had a chance to put North Carolina in a double-digit hole before halftime. But two wide-open 3-pointers clanged and the opportunity was lost forever.
Let the record show that the Zags actually led inside the final two minutes, so in that regard … yeah, they’d have won if Carolina hadn’t scored again. But Carolina scored seven points to the Zags’ zero over the final 1:46, and there was your ballgame. Gonzaga got so far but no further. The better team won.
“The basketball community was really stale on the Zags,” Few said of his players, “and they ignited it. They proved we were capable of winning a national championship.”
Sorry again, but no again. I’ve been on hand for Carolina’s past 10 NCAA tournament games, and this was the Heels’ worst by far. (Had they played this way against Villanova last year, Kris Jenkins’ game-winner wouldn’t have been needed. Nova would have won by 20.)
“It was an ugly game,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I don’t think either team played very well. They shot 27 percent the second half; we shot 36 percent for the game.”
Much was made of Gonzaga’s capacity to match Carolina’s size. The Zags were as big, yes, and they actually outrebounded the Heels. But Carolina scored 20 second-chance points to Gonzaga’s 14, and the final score was 71-65. Hicks, who’d had an awful NCAA tournament, scored 13 points and had nine rebounds. Joel Berry II, playing on a tender ankle, needed 19 shots to score 22 points, and his three 3-pointers — Carolina was 4-for-27 on treys — were manna from heaven.
In the end, the nation’s best team won. In the end, Gonzaga was revealed to be less than advanced analytics suggested. In the end, the best thing about the NCAA championship game was that it ended.
The final act by a Carolina player fell to Theo Pinson, who flung the ball on high and saw it bounce once on the court and carom into press row. The hands that rose to snatch it belonged to Bill Walton, which seemed both incongruous yet fitting. After 40 minutes that saw two teams labor to put the ball in the basket, the ball itself wound up in the hands of the man who, in this game in 1973, had made 21 of 22 shots.
That’s correct. On a Monday night in St. Louis, Bill Walton made one more basket by himself than, 44 years later, Gonzaga did as a team.
Further reading: North Carolina wins, but this wasn’t exactly a shining moment.