PHOENIX - 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.
"Just unreal that we get a second chance at this," junior Theo Pinson said, recounting a pre-game conversation with teammate Joel Berry II. "Not a lot of people can say they can do that. I told him, 'We're about to take this thing. I'm about to give everything I got.' I knew he would, too, We just didn't want to come up short again."
But to say everything went right for Roy Williams' team at this Final Four would be less than 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.
Kennedy Meeks the first to cut the net pic.twitter.com/9Lf83gM8ZJ— Phil Orban (@philorbanWSOC9) April 4, 2017
Jackson took a zinger of a pass under the basket from Pinson and converted the shot, then the ensuing free throw to take the lead for good. Moments later, Williams-Goss twisted an 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 (who wasn't?), 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 championship, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp.
Luke Maye getting his piece of the net pic.twitter.com/cnx5hKzNZE— Phil Orban (@philorbanWSOC9) April 4, 2017
"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 but went 0 for 9 from 3. 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.
Heels celebrate first title since 2009 pic.twitter.com/I2oW9NuvrH— Phil Orban (@philorbanWSOC9) April 4, 2017
The game "featured" 52 free throws. Both teams were in the bonus with 13 minutes left. Somehow, Collins was the only player to foul out.
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 inadvertently grabbed Berry around the neck. After a long delay, the refs called Karnowski for a flagrant foul of his own.
"I'm not going to talk about refs," Karnowski said. "It was just a physical game."
Zags coach Mark Few handled it with class, calling the refs "three of the best officials in the entire country," and insisting they did a fine job.
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 3. One problem: Meeks' right hand looks to be very much touching out of bounds while he's trying to rip away the ball.
"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 (37-2), the Cinderella-turned-Godzilla team from the small school in the West Coast Conference, tried to keep the big picture in mind. Twenty years ago, this sort of run at that sort of place 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," junior forward 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."
Fans rejoice across the Carolinas after UNC captures NCAA title
North Carolina fans packed Franklin Street overnight, celebrating after Monday night's National Championship victory.
The Town of Chapel Hill reported that an estimated crowd of 55,000 people rushed Franklin Street immediately following the victory, at which time the streets were closed to traffic.
Those streets were cleaned and reopened to regular traffic just after 2 a.m. and officials reported that seven people suffered injuries during the celebrations, four of whom suffered burns.
Town officials also extinguished and cleaned several bonfires on Franklin Street.
Crowds erupted across the Carolinas, especially in Charlotte, where hundreds gathered at Moo and Brew in Plaza Midwood, where the restaurant held the city's official watch party.
Fans were on edge, hoping for redemption after the teams’ loss last year to Villanova at the buzzer. But after the big win, fans couldn't contain their joy, and even Mayor Jennifer Roberts was caught dancing.
“It feels amazing,” said one fan. “I feel like last year was taken from us at the last moment and this is just, it feels great -- so excited.”
Dick's Sporting Goods in the SouthPark Mall opened immediately after the game and Channel 9 was there as the store laid out the official championship shirts.
Dick’s will re-open at 7 a.m. Tuesday to offer the gear to the public.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will hold a welcome home reception for the team at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Dean E. Smith Center.
Berry overcomes injuries to lead Tar Heels to NCAA title
Joel Berry II kept battling, both against the pain of ankle injuries and the frustration brimming from an off-target shot that had plagued him throughout the NCAA Tournament.
Turns out, maybe the junior point guard was just saving it all for one big moment: the chance to give North Carolina the national championship that had slipped so painfully away a year earlier.
Berry scored a game-high 22 points, including four 3-pointers, to help the Tar Heels rally in the final 2 minutes to beat Gonzaga 71-65 in Monday's title game.
Berry finished just 7 for 19 from the field, 4 for 13 from 3-point range and 4 of 8 from the line. But it wasn't about his shooting percentages; it was the fact he made big - sometimes desperately needed - shots en route to scoring 13 points after halftime to be named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
"I mean, I'm just emotionally drained just because I put my all into this," Berry said. "Just the things I've been going through the last couple of weeks: not being 100 percent, not shooting the ball like I wanted to, struggling from the 3-point line, struggling from the free-throw line, which is a shock to myself.
"I put it all out there tonight. I'm glad I did because now we're national champions."
Berry was shooting just 28 percent (17 of 60) in the first five tournament games for UNC (33-7), including 8 for 34 (24 percent) from 3-point range. And at least some of that could be attributable to the ankle injuries.
First, he rolled his right ankle in a 1-vs-16 rout of Texas Southern in the first round. Then, in the Elite Eight against Kentucky, Berry rolled his left ankle on a first-half drive to the basket.
It quickly became a daily topic for every media session for the Tar Heels, and even a familiar bit of injury drama at the point going back to injuries that hobbled Ty Lawson (toe) at the start of a tournament run to the 2009 title and sidelined Kendall Marshall (broken wrist) to derail a Final Four bid in 2012.
Coach Roy Williams had at least raised the possibility of whether Berry would be ready to play early in the week, though it seemed unlikely that the guy who might be the Tar Heels' toughest competitor wouldn't give it a go.
"He's been in the pool, hot tub, cold tub," said Williams, who passed his late mentor Dean Smith by winning a third NCAA championship. "They've been massaging it, doing everything they can possibly do, four and five times a day.
"But the games are going to be played. We can't get a delay and say, 'We're not ready.' You've got to play. And his toughness, I think, everybody on our club picked up on that. I think it was important to everybody."
His teammates kept insisting Berry would be ready. They were right.
"Joel's an extremely tough guy," senior Nate Britt said. "I think that's why when you guys asked us about him, none of us were worried because we know how tough he is and we know as a team how important getting here and winning this game was. ... Joel's been the toughest guy on our team for the last two years. Like I said, nothing would hold him back."
After all, he scored 20 points with four 3-pointers in last year's last-second loss to Villanova in the national title game, then showed up the next day for the team's return to campus on crutches with his left foot in a boot due to an injury suffered sometime during that game.
The problem was Berry had seemed to be trending in the wrong direction in this year's tournament. He had bounced back from a second-round struggle against Arkansas with 26 points against Butler in the Sweet 16, but he had to fight through the Kentucky game then struggled mightily in the national semifinals against Oregon.
Berry said the injuries were affecting the lift on his shot, and it showed against the Ducks. He missed 12 of 14 shots, leaving Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks to carry the attack.
But with Jackson struggling with his shot and the Tar Heels getting little inside Monday night, Berry responded in a big way.
Berry's last 3 gave UNC a 62-60 lead with 4:18 left. He didn't hit another shot, but it ultimately didn't matter; he had essentially bought UNC time until Jackson and Isaiah Hicks finally mustered a couple of tough baskets during the Tar Heels' game-closing 8-0 run over the final 1:53 of the game that helped them outlast an opponent that had lost just once all season.
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