There was a rock fight in the desert Monday night, and North Carolina emerged the victor. The Tar Heels climbed a ladder, cut down nets and tried to move past a performance that included missing 25 shot attempts from beyond the arc.
It was an NCAA national title game full of blown whistles and missed shots, but in the end, the Tar Heels broke loose to flush home a game-deciding dunk on a fastbreak, forced one last turnover and tossed the ball into the air as confetti fell.
No. 1 North Carolina outlasted No. 1 Gonzaga, 71-65.
Little added up. No. 1 UNC hit on 35.6% of shots from the field. The Tar Heels missed 11 of 26 free throws and collected three fewer rebounds.
"I don’t think either team played well tonight," Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
For a team that lost to Villanova on a buzzer beater in last season’s national title game, it was redemption without rhythm.
It was a good thing the Tar Heels (33-7) didn’t need a three at the end. There was no Marcus Paige to double pump one in. UNC made 4 of its 29 tries from deep.
No matter. It will go down as North Carolina’s sixth national title. It will also mark Williams’ resume with a third title. It came as the program has been enmeshed in a major academic scandal for past infractions. Fans in Carolina blue booed NCAA president Mark Emmert as he congratulated the team on court.
Gonzaga led by two with 1:52 remaining, but finished 37-2 after reaching the Final Four and title game for the first time in its program’s history. Guard Nigel Williams-Goss led the Bulldogs with 15 points, but what flowed earlier in the tournament froze at the end for Gonzaga.
"It was a slugfest out there," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "It’s two teams that desperately wanted to be crowned national champion. And I think to be so close for us is a temporarily crushing blow right now."
Williams now holds one more title to his name than his mentor Dean Smith. Williams can thank junior guard Joel Berry II for his 22 points and junior forward Justin Jackson for his 16 points despite missing all nine of his attempts from three.
There were fouls galore in Glendale, Ariz. Forty four times a foul was called.
No player drew more intrigue than Zach Collins. Fresh off a national semifinal performance that included blocking six shots on defense, he was blocked twice on one offensive possession early. He picked up two fouls by halftime, and a third whistle was blown on him less than two minutes into the second half. Still, he played on, finishing with 9 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. He also turned the ball over four times and fouled out with 5:03 remaining.
Foul trouble trailed both teams in the final 10 minutes. Collins, Gonzaga forward Johnathan Williams and Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks all had four fouls by that point on the clock.
Gonzaga got after North Carolina by getting on the floor. If it wasn’t Josh Perkins turning a loose ball into a 3-pointer it was Killian Tillie fighting for the ball on the floor and finding a cutting Karnowski for an easy two. There was blood on Carolina swingman Theo Pinson’s arm and teammate Joel Berry II checking for blood after a collision with Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski. A flagrant 1 foul was called on Karnowski. It was his fourth. A personal was also called on Berry, who missed both free throws. The game was then tied, 52-52, with 8:02 remaining.
Karnowski finished with one field goal on eight attempts.
North Carolina needed a big game from swingman Justin Jackson. He came out shooting, putting up six 3-pointers in the opening half. He missed all of them, but kept active, using his wingspan to frustrate the Bulldogs on defense and tip in a missed shot on offense. He moved well without the basketball, getting open for a layup with under two minutes left to put UNC up 66-65. He also flushed home the game-deciding dunk in the final seconds.
Carolina turned a three-point halftime deficit into a five-point lead 2:30 into the second half.
There was a reminder of last year’s loss sitting in the family section behind UNC’s bench. It was Kris Jenkins, the Villanova senior who hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer of the 2016 NCAA title game to beat the Tar Heels. His brother, Nate Britt, was on the North Carolina then and now. Jenkins looked on as North Carolina celebrated.