PHOENIX — Justin Jackson looked down and rolled his eyes when a reporter at a pre-national championship press conference asked him about last year’s heartbreaking title game loss to Villanova.
It’s not that Jackson and his teammates are tired of the question. Okay, so maybe after hearing it at least 20 times this weekend and perhaps 1,000 more since the start of the season, they have grown a bit weary of it.
But the point isn’t about Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Houston or the fire it lit under the Tar Heels. That heartbreaking event officially became a thing of the past the moment UNC survived Saturday’s semifinal game against Oregon.
The motivation of Villanova was to get back to the first Monday in April and have a chance at winning the championship the Tar Heels believed was taken from them a year ago.
With that goal now accomplished, their focus has shifted from exorcising a ghost from their past to taking care of business in the here and now — tonight’s championship showdown against Gonzaga at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“At the end of the day it’s a different team. It’s a different year,” Jackson said. “I don’t know how much we’re really going to be thinking about ‘we saw this last year so maybe we can change it this year.’ I think it’s just going out there and playing as hard as we possibly can.”
Although the Tar Heels have played hard throughout this postseason, they haven’t always been at their best.
They had to rally from late five-point deficits against both Arkansas and Kentucky just to get to Phoenix, then managed to beat Oregon with two of their best players — Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks — combining to go just 3 of 26 from the floor. Their 12-0 run to finish off the Razorbacks, Luke Maye’s dramatic game-winner against the Wildcats and the bizarre ending against the Ducks, in which UNC grabbed two straight offensive rebounds to run out the clock after missing its final four free throws, suggest that the Tar Heels might just be a team of destiny.
But Saturday’s semifinal star Kennedy Meeks aggressively discounted that theory, saying that to suggest fate alone has fueled his team’s postseason run only cheapens the effort it’s taken to get back to the championship game. He said that while he believes in a “higher power,” it’s been preparation, hard work, grit and attention to detail — not destiny — that has brought his team back to this point.
“Some of us are at our highest peak and some of us will, hopefully, continue to keep it going,” Meeks said. “For us to close it out like that would be the icing on the cake for all (our) hard work over the course of the season.”
Meeks and Jackson are the UNC players that have grown the most, with the latter having graduated from a secondary role to stars Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige over his first two seasons into this year’s ACC Player of the Year.
In addition to his increased role on as a scorer, where he averages a team-leading 18.3 points per game, Jackson has grown into a much better defender and demonstrative leader — as evidenced by his trash-talking defensive masterpiece against Kentucky’s Malik Monk in Memphis. Unlike last year’s team, where Paige was the unquestioned leader and Johnson the go-go guy, these current Tar Heels have taken more of a group approach in both areas.
With eight players back from that heart-wrenching April night a year ago, their bond might be even stronger as they approach the one game they’ve waited 364 days to play.
“I know last year has been on my mind a lot and I don’t want that same outcome,” said point guard Joel Berry, who has been battling a pair of sprained ankles throughout this NCAA tournament. “But we have to focus on right now and not worry about last year. We can’t change that. We can only have an effect on what will happen (tonight).”
And they’re not the only ones who will have a say in the matter.
In Gonzaga (37-1), UNC will face perhaps the toughest test they’ve faced all season — an almost mirror image of itself with a solid inside game anchored by 7-foot-1, 304-pound Przemek Karnowski and an explosive perimeter threat in All-American Nigel Goss-Williams.
Despite their record and equal footing as a fellow No. 1 regional seed, the Bulldogs have somehow taken on the role of David to the Tar Heels’ Goliath. It’s a perception Jackson and his teammates aren’t buying. At this point, they’ve come too far to take anyone lightly or anything for granted.
“I actually just read through the story of David and Goliath,” said the deeply religious UNC forward. “I don’t think that’s what this is at all. I think Gonzaga is a very good team. They only lost one game all year. But we feel like we’re a really good team, so we have to be ready to play — play as hard as we possibly can and leave it on the line.”
Because this time, there won’t be any more chances for redemption.