By Jason Earle
College basketball’s final weekend fell nothing short of expectations. Saturday night’s semifinal games saw winning margins of 4 and 1, while the title game on Monday night was not much worse as North Carolina rallied late to defeat Gonzaga by a mere six points, 71-65. Joel Berry II of the Tar Heels was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, mainly for his performance in the championship game when he dropped a game-high 22 points against an impressive Gonzaga defense.
In the opening game on Saturday night, Gonzaga held off South Carolina 77-73 as Mark Few and the Bulldogs inched one step closer to the coveted National Championship trophy. It was a year of unfamiliar teams in the Final Four, aside from the Tar Heels. Neither South Carolina nor Gonzaga had ever been to the semifinals. Meanwhile, on the other side, Oregon hadn’t been to the Final Four since 1939. Both the Gamecocks and Zags were somewhat uncommon picks to make it to Phoenix as South Carolina was a 7 seed out of the SEC while Gonzaga hadn’t proven their ability to compete with top-notch teams after playing in the WCC all season.
In the contest, Gonzaga built an early lead that ultimately developed into a 14 point advantage about halfway through the second half. The Bulldogs’ 65-51 lead simply vanished in a four minute span as South Carolina took the lead 67-65 due to a 16-0 run led by stars P.J. Dozier and Sindarius Thornwell who combined for 32 points on the night. A 3 from Zach Collins put Gonzaga back on top, and they were able to maintain the lead for the remainder of the contest. Wooden Award finalist Nigel Williams-Goss led the team with 23 points while Collins contributed 14.
In the second game, North Carolina barely fought off Oregon to advance to the National Championship game 77-76. Unlike the other three teams, the Final Four is familiar territory for the Tar Heels. They’ve been there six times since the turn of the decade, including last year’s appearance that saw them fall to Villanova in the title game thanks to a buzzer beating 3 from Kris Jenkins. Roy Williams, head coach of the Heels since 2003, was coaching in his fifth Final Four as the team’s boss. Dana Altman of Oregon, meanwhile, has only been with the Ducks since 2010 but has quickly turned the program in the right direction.
The game was close the whole way, though the Ducks were playing catch up most of the time and failed to capture a lead in the second half. The ending of this one was one of the best in the entire tournament. After Keith Smith’s layup with 6 seconds left, Tyler Dorsey immediately fouled Kennedy Meeks as the Ducks were still down 1, 77-76. In this situation, it seemed Oregon would get one final run up the floor with five seconds in an attempt to tie or win, depending on Meeks’ free throw results. The senior missed both foul shots, but Theo Pinson battled his way over Jordan Bell to tip it out to his teammates along the perimeter, and Joel Berry II was fouled with 4 ticks left. Oregon had missed a prime opportunity to regain possession but would still get another chance in the final four seconds. Or so it seemed. After Berry, a 77% free throw shooter, missed both shots from the charity stripe, Kennedy Meeks grabbed the board, and the clock expired. Two offensive rebounds clinched the win for North Carolina and sent them to the title game for a battle with Gonzaga. Dorsey and Dylan Ennis had 21 and 18, respectively, for the Ducks in a losing effort, while Meeks put up a game-high 25 points for the Heels along with Justin Jackson’s 22.
Though we didn’t get a thrilling buzzer-beater like last year, we certainly saw a back-and-forth fight that was close until the very end in Monday night’s championship game. The game also left some people wondering whether these were really the two best teams in college basketball. Neither team exceeded 36% from the floor while both teams reached the double bonus about midway through the second half. It was ugly basketball. The Zags were at least able to connect from beyond the arc as they knocked down 8 of 19 3s in the game. That was not the case for the Tar Heels who shot 4 of 27 from 3, all from Joel Berry II. While each team experienced a bunch of leads throughout the game, North Carolina’s stellar play in the final two minutes ultimately gave them the championship, topped off by a fast break dunk by Justin Jackson to seal the deal. The first team All-American had a poor shooting night, going 0 of 9 from 3 in the season’s most important contest. Fortunately, Berry’s 22 points and 6 assists were enough to will the Tar Heels to victory and earn him the Most Outstanding Player award for the weekend. Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins led the Bulldogs with 15 and 13, respectively. Despite Jackson’s poor shooting night, he was the second highest scorer for UNC with 16.
Mark Few and Gonzaga took a huge step this season. They proved that they can compete on an elite level in college basketball and could likely end up in the Final Four again in the near future. Depending on NBA draft decisions, Gonzaga could be in for another outstanding season in 2017-18.
For North Carolina, Roy Williams racks up his third National Championship and sends out a very talented class with a trophy. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks will graduate, while Justin Jackson will almost certainly leave for the NBA and become one of the league’s best young talents. Joel Berry II is probably the team’s biggest question mark. Having a senior leader in Berry who’s been to two title games would be a huge keep for North Carolina. He could be the difference next year in whether the Heels will be able to reach a third consecutive championship game in what would be an incredible accomplishment.
The madness is officially over, and college basketball fans are forced to wait until November for next year’s plot. A number of intriguing storylines await.