GLENDALE, Ariz. – Let’s start with this: North Carolina’s 35.6 percent shooting in Monday’s national championship game is its lowest in an NCAA Tournament win in 60 years and the third lowest on record.
The Tar Heels weren’t much better in Saturday night’s win over Oregon, connecting on 36.8 percent of their field goal attempts. For a team that was seemingly apathetic on the defensive end for stretches of ACC play – opponents shot 48 percent or better in 11 of the 27 halves played entering the NCAA Tournament – such poor shooting would typically invite a loss.
“I don’t care what we shot,” Kennedy Meeks said after his team’s 71-65 win over Gonzaga. “We won the game, man.”
My, how the defensive equation changed once the national championship trophy was in play.
UNC held the Bulldogs to a season-low 33.9 percent shooting, including a 27.6 percent mark after halftime. Gonzaga endured an eight-minute stretch in the second half without a field goal and had more turnovers (9) than made baskets (8).
After Nigel Williams-Goss’s turnaround gave Gonzaga a 65-63 lead with 1:53 to play, UNC held its opponent scoreless on its final four possessions and closed out its victory with an 8-0 spurt.
Gonzaga seven-footer Przeme Karnowski (9 points on 1-of-8 shooting) was largely held in check by Meeks, while an early defensive switch by Roy Williams to throw Justin Jackson’s length at Williams-Goss frustrated the Bulldogs leading scorer (15 points, 5-of-17).
“The main goal was just to wall [Karnowski] as much as we could, which is vertical, straight up and down, and hope that he misses the shot,” Meeks said. “In the first half, we definitely did a great job of trying to contain him. He did a much better job in the second half. He hit some big free throws for those guys… We had a game plan, we executed and it leads to being victorious.”
Meeks once again came up with strong defensive plays in the final minutes. After Isaiah Hicks connected on a driving shot attempt off the right side against Johnathan Williams to put UNC up 68-65 with 26 seconds to play, Gonzaga set up a play to pick Theo Pinson at the top of the key to free up Williams-Goss.
Karnowski set the screen, Meeks hedged flat and was able to stay in front of the Gonzaga guard as he spun back into the lane. Meeks blocked the shot, Joel Berry scooped it up and fired ahead to a streaking Jackson to seal the victory with a slam dunk.
“Nigel was doing such a great job of attacking the goal,” Meeks said. “Coach had told me on the play before to come over a little more to help. He beat our guy and I just tried to be there.”
So what changed for this bunch of Tar Heels?
“That want-to and the will,” Pinson said. “The last three minutes we really locked in defensively. We understand that’s money time. You’ve got to make plays at the end. You can’t look back; you can’t sulk in the moment. You’ve got to just play.”
Senior guard Nate Britt highlighted a renewed focus on the defensive end as being the primary spark.
“We’ve always had the ability to lock down on the defensive end,” Britt said. “Between Joel, Seventh [Woods] and me at the guard spot, we’re quick enough to be able to contain other teams’ point guards and then Justin and Theo are long enough to be able to contain guys on the wing. Kennedy, Isaiah, Luke [Maye] and Tony [Bradley] are athletic enough to contest bigs and protect our paint. So the ability has always been there, it’s just been the focus I think that’s changed for us.”
Williams has preached and prodded his team throughout the season to take pride in its defensive play, a charge that often left the Hall of Fame coach crazy and the fan base questioning whether or not a run to the Final Four was in the cards. The Tar Heels finally got the point once it mattered most.
"They were excellent tonight defensively," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. "They disrupted us. They climbed up into us, kind of drove our offense outside the normal area, as far as our wing touches and our entries. And we didn't do a good job of probably executing that, but they deserve tons of credit... It was their length, it was their physicality, their defensive plan. They did a great job. They won this game with their defense, quite frankly."
The 2005 title team held its NCAA Tournament opponents to a combined 39.3 percent shooting, while the 2009 title team limited its tournament opponents to 38.5 percent shooting. The freshly-minted 2017 national champions were right behind, holding their NCAA Tournament opposition to 39.6 percent.