GLENDALE, Ariz. – North Carolina coach Roy Williams held in his emotion with nervousness, clinging to hug his players as he watched the final seconds of the game wind down. His players hovered over his body in anticipation.
Williams knew this was their opportunity to redeem their lose in last year’s National Championship game, a moment that he and his players have reflected on throughout the tournament. And this was their opportunity to redefine their moment and to bask in the victory that alluded them a year ago.
And redefine they did.
As the buzzer sounded Williams’ emotions poured over him just as the confetti did on Monday, when the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga 71-65 at the University of Phoenix Stadium to capture their 6th national title in school history.
And one that will be marked as one of Williams’ greatest moments in his coaching career.
It was a physical battle between the two teams, one that was dictated by rebounds, second chance points, and hard-nosed defense.
Despite Joel Berry II’s 22-point performance, the Tar Heels couldn’t establish themselves offensively. They relied on Gonzaga turnovers and offensive rebounds to provide scoring opportunities inside. Carolina shot 35.6 percent from the field and 14.8 percent from 3-point range.
But despite their inefficient play, senior forward Isaiah Hicks made big plays down the stretch to swing the game’s momentum in Carolina’s direction.
“He (Hicks) was big for us,” Williams said. “And made a couple big baskets down the stretch.”
At 13:45 in the second half, the Tar Heels capitalized on a Gonzaga turnover, as Pinson scored on an open layup in transition. The next possession, Hicks made a 3-point play to obtain Carolina’s 44-43 lead.
Following their lead, Carolina again, engaged in sloppy offensive execution. But Hicks was there, again, to make an impact in the game’s most pivotal moment.
With 25 seconds remaining in the game and the score 66-65, it was a moment they’d envisioned since last year’s loss. But they were prepared to erase last year’s outcome and make this their defining moment.
Berry II confidently set the offense, penetrated inside and passed to senior forward Isaiah Hicks, who bounced the ball off the right side of the glass to put Carolina up, 68-65.
The following possession, forward Kennedy Meeks blocked Gonzaga’s shot attempt and passed the ball down court to Justin Jackson, who slammed the ball in to secure Carolina’s victory.
“At the end, when you’re watching your kids jump around in excitement,” Williams said. “There’s no better feeling to have as a coach.”
It was a thrilling end to a hard-fought game, and one that cemented Williams’ legacy as one of the greatest coaches in history, as he passes former Carolina coach Dean Smith with his third national title with the Tar Heels.