GLENDALE — (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) — The redemption tour is complete.
North Carolina talked about redemption all season, spurred by the painful memory of losing last year’s national title game on Villanova’s last-second 3-pointer.
The Tar Heels found themselves back in a similar situation Monday night.
Joel Berry II
This time, they made sure a potential heartbreaker did not even get to the rim.
The Tar Heels won their sixth national title, beating Gonzaga 71-65 in the NCAA Tournament final at University of Phoenix Stadium, with the key play being a late-game block by center Kennedy Meeks. His rejection of a shot by a driving Nigel Williams-Goss led to a decisive fastbreak dunk by Justin Jackson with 12 seconds left.
“This is what we worked for,” said North Carolina point guard Joel Berry II, selected the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. “The ups and downs that we had, it’s all worth it. I can’t even describe my feeling right now, but I’m just glad I was able to do something with this team just because of our personality and what we went through.
“I think we just deserved it.”
Coach Roy Williams earned his third national title at North Carolina, the school’s first since 2009.
This year’s title game was a cold-shooting, foul-filled affair, but what the game lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in drama, with the game on the line in the final minute.
Forward Isaiah Hicks made a hanging jumper in the lane with 26 seconds left for a 68-65 North Carolina lead before Williams-Goss, who had scored eight consecutive points for Gonzaga, was blocked on the other end. Williams-Goss sustained an ankle injury about a minute earlier, and coach Mark Few suggested the guard didn’t have his usual lift off the floor.
Berry made one free throw with seven seconds left to finish with a game-high 22 points.
With 44 total fouls — 27 in the second half — the referees were a key storyline. Moreover, a held-ball situation with 45 seconds left that went to North Carolina came after Meeks apparently touched the ball with his other hand out of bounds.
Few said he didn’t have an angle on that play to suggest a replay review, and neither did he criticize the game officials.
“First of all, I mean, those were three of the best officials in the entire country — NBA, college or anything,” Few said. “I thought they did a great job. I mean, these are two heavyweight teams going at it, inside, playing really, really physical basketball. You still have to officiate the game of basketball, and that’s what they did.
“I had no issue whatsoever. I thought they did a fabulous job. And I’m on the losing end.”
Gonzaga (37-2) missed nine consecutive shots in the second half and went 8:27 without a basket, but North Carolina (33-7) didn’t have the offense to deliver a decisive run as it remained a one-possession game for almost all of the second half in a battle of No. 1 seeds.
All of the game’s key big men were in some sort of foul trouble in the second half.
Meeks picked up his fourth with 9:42 to go. Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski drew his fourth foul with 8:02 to go. The Bulldogs’ Zach Collins — the hero of a Final Four win over South Carolina — fouled out with 5:03 to go after playing only 14 minutes. He still finished with nine points and seven rebounds.
Jackson, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, scored 16 points but missed all nine of his 3-point attempts.
“It was an ugly game,” Williams said. “I don’t think either team played well offensively. I don’t think either team got in a real good flow, and that fouls were part of it.”
Williams-Goss scored 15 points but was just 5 of 17 from the field. He added nine rebounds and six assists. Karnowski was stymied by Meeks and others, shooting 1 of 8 from the field for nine points. Guard Justin Perkins scored 13 — all in the first half.
North Carolina shot 35.6 percent. Gonzaga shot 33.9 percent. However, the Tar Heels had just enough and made a couple more plays than Gonzaga, which was playing in its first national championship game.
“Talking to (Syracuse) coach (Jim) Boeheim earlier in the week, he told me it will crush you if you don’t win it,” Few said. “And I guess I didn’t understand it, but the cagey old veteran is right. Man, it crushes you.”
NOTES: North Carolina appeared in its 11th national championship game, with its previous titles coming in 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009. … The final featured a matchup of the two active coaches with the best winning percentages — Gonzaga’s Mark Few (81.9 percent) and North Carolina’s Roy Williams (79.0 percent). … Williams coached in his 100th NCAA Tournament game; he is 76-24. … For the fifth consecutive season, the title game was decided by six points or fewer. … Gonzaga is 0-8 against No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. … The 44 fouls were the most in a title game since 2009, when North Carolina and Michigan State combined for 50