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GLENDALE, Ariz. — When the gnarled, tortured yearlong trail of North Carolina finally found its way to its prettiest peak, it figured the last steps would brim with bricks, rocks and clutter. It figured its latest national championship would occur in a mucky stew of missed shots and incessant fouls such as this 71-65 win over fellow kingpin Gonzaga.
It figured that when Coach Roy Williams would raise his fists with a giant grin and his third national title, and the long-prominent Tar Heels program would have its sixth, the stat sheet would wind up full of groans. North Carolina’s 4-for-27 three-point shooting made sense. Its ugly 15-for-26 free throw shooting made sense. The foul trouble and other trouble that limited big man Kennedy Meeks seemed a nodding part of the tapestry.
“I think this group was tough enough tonight,” Williams said, echoing the messiness of the thing.
The whole trail to here, to outscoring Gonzaga 8-0 over the last 100 seconds for a last-jolt win, had been riddled with harrowing views and hairpin escapes. It began 364 nights prior with the Villanovan nightmare in Houston. From the ACC tournament to this final Monday night, it howled with snarls from Duke, Arkansas and Kentucky. It featured the bizarre and sputtering pause with the four missed free throws in the last six seconds against Oregon. And it had an academic scandal always shouting from the woods.
Then it had this unsightly thing with Gonzaga.
When it grew clear it would be a matter of somebody pushing ahead with one last burst, but nobody could be sure who, the Bulldogs went ahead 65-63 with 1:53 left on an emphatic pull-up bank from their floor leader, Nigel Williams-Goss. Having upheld their No. 1 seeding and more, they could have seen the title just up ahead, not figuring to become the unhappiest 37-2 team extant.
Then the last burst went the other way, to a way long familiar in the mad sport, to North Carolina’s way. It happened in a sudden flurry of good plays. It included a big play, of course, by a player who shot 6 for 19, a big assist from a player who had just two, and another big play by a player who spent the semifinal against Oregon shooting an unusually wretched 1 for 12.
First, Theo Pinson registered that assist with 1:40 left, finding Justin Jackson under the basket on the right, so that Jackson could make a layup and draw a foul for a 66-65 lead. Then Williams-Goss had trouble with his leg, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few called a timeout, and Williams-Goss made a sweet move to create his own shot, only to front-rim it from near the foul line with 1:19 left.
Then, after another unlovely scrap beneath the basket for an offensive rebound of Joel Berry’s hopeless shot, the possession arrow went to the Tar Heels, and Isaiah Hicks, of all people, moved along the right side of the lane, hovered in the air and banked in a confident shot for a 68-65 lead with 26 seconds left.
Three weeks and 68 teams had distilled to this final snippet, with the possibility of a Gonzaga three-point shot perhaps ringing in Carolinian heads. It never came to that. After Few called another timeout with 21.9 seconds left, Williams-Goss again went venturing into the lane, as he had so often and so confidently through the Zags’ nearly spotless season.
The 6-foot-10, 265-pound Meeks, who had rescued North Carolina (33-7) from its trouble against Oregon with 25 points and 14 rebounds, but who had seven points and 10 rebounds and missed 3 of 4 free throws in the final, maintained his capacity to wreak a major play. He rejected the last shot of Williams-Goss’s magnificent season, and the Tar Heels sent Jackson off toward a happy, lonely jam with 11.4 seconds left for a 70-65 lead.
Soon, when Meeks made a steal, and Gonzaga prepared for some days of ache, there was Williams-Goss in the corner, face in jersey, great season in tears. His massive 7-foot-1 teammate, Przemek Karnowski, had struggled at 1 for 8. Williams-Goss himself had gone 5 for 17 for 15 points even if he did add nine rebounds and six assists.
Before them, Arkansas had led North Carolina by five with 3:30 left. Kentucky had led it by five with five minutes left. The Tar Heels had closed down their Oregon game botching free throws. And the Tar Heels had clambered through all of it.