PHOENIX — One day shy of a year ago, Theo Pinson sat slumped in a chair in a Houston locker room with a towel draped over his head to hide his tear-filled eyes.
He was distraught over North Carolina’s heart-wrenching loss to Villanova in college basketball’s national championship game. It was a moment so powerful that he used a picture of his dejection as the screensaver on his cell phone for motivation.
Monday night, as the seconds ticked away on another national final, Pinson and his teammates were crying again.Only this time they were tears of joy. And maybe a little relief.
The Tar Heels started the season with the stated mission of winning the championship that so barely eluded them last season. Nothing else would do. It’s a quest that came to a successful conclusion at University of Phoenix Stadium with a 71-65 win against Gonzaga that induced a rush of emotion in the victors even before the final buzzer sounded.
“I don’t think anybody can really explain that feeling,” said Pinson, one of eight UNC players back from the disappointment of 2016. “Everybody on the floor was tearing up with seven seconds left. It was so hard to keep yourself together because you knew you were that close.”
It was so difficult, that they had to call timeout to compose themselves before Joel Berry stepped to the line for the free throw that put an exclamation point on UNC’s sixth NCAA title.
“I don’t know why, but all of a sudden the ref came up to me and said ‘your coach wants to know if you want a timeout,'” Berry said. “And I said yes.”I went up to Coach and I just hugged him. I told him ‘I’m about to cry.’ And he told me just go out there and knock your free throws in.”
Berry missed the first and made the second to finish an 8-0 closing run that finally put Gonzaga (37-2) away.
It was a decisive stretch that began shortly after the final TV timeout with Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss hitting a jumper with 1:51 left to put his team ahead 65-63. ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson got the lead back by driving hard to the rim and scoring as he was fouled, and making the ensuing free throw.
Then, after a defensive stop and a rebound by Pinson, the much-maligned Isaiah Hicks made the most important shot of his career before Kennedy Meeks provided the coup de grÃ¢ce with a block of Williams-Goss that led to a Jackson runout dunk.
It was a fitting end to a tournament in which the Tar Heels (32-7) were constantly pushed to the brink of defeat, only to save themselves at the end by doing just enough to get by.
“With three minutes to play we had a timeout and I said if you would have told us we were going to be in this situation on the first day of school, meeting at my house, we would have taken it,” coach Roy Williams said. “I didn’t do one other daggum thing. These guys made big-time plays.”
And it was the memory of that national championship lost that drove them to do it.
“One of our assistant coaches said remember that moment and how we felt last year and we don’t want to do that again,” Berry, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, said. “That’s when we were locked in. We went out there and just gave it our all, literally, and we were able to come out with the win.”
That they did, even though it wasn’t the prettiest or most efficient game they’ve ever played.In fact, the Tar Heels’ field goal percentage of 35.6 (26 of 73) was their worst in an NCAA tournament win since a game against Princeton in 1967.
Jackson, UNC’s single-season record-holder for 3-pointers, missed all nine of his shots from beyond the arc while he and his teammates barely made 50 percent of the free throw attempts. UNC was outrebounded 49-46, only the fourth time all season that’s happened.
And yet, it still found a way to win.It did so by committing only four turnovers, getting 22 points and six assists from Berry, an outstanding defensive job by Meeks on Bulldogs big man Przemek Karnowski, and two timely plays at just the right time by Jackson and Hicks.
And because they did, Pinson will have a happier new screensaver for his phone and his team will get another new banner to hang from the Smith Center rafters.
“This is what we’ve worked for,” Berry said. “The ups and downs that we’ve 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 because of the personality and what we went through, I think we just deserved it.”