GLENDALE, Ariz. The University of North Carolina survived Gonzaga, 72-65, to win the national championship here last night in a game that was far from an artistic triumph.
In fact, in terms of dreadful shooting percentages and bad officiating and an irritating, uneven flow, it was one of the most forgetful games I have seen in my 45 years of covering this grand event. The generic fan likely felt the same way.
North Carolina shot 35.6 percent, made just 4 of 27 three point shots, missed 11 free throws and were out rebounded and still won because they scored 40 points in the paint and only committed four turnovers. Gonzaga, which actually led 35-32 at halftime, shot just 33.9 percent and suffered a total meltdown in the second half when the Zags shot 8 for 29. At one point, they were 3 for 19.
North Carolina won this game of attrition with defense.
But It was hard for the crowd of 76,000 and the national TV audience to watch, leading to the conclusion that Villanova’s shooting excellence in Houston last year when the Cats shot 71 percent against Oklahoma in the semi-finals and 58 percent in the win over North Carolina in the championship game was an aberration and it is almost impossible to produce impressive offensive numbers in this big football stadiums in an elevated court where there no real depth perception. The best games in this tournament– Florida’s 84-83 overtime victory in the Sweet 16 against Florida when Chris Chiozza went end to end and made a three point shot at the buzzer and Luke Maye’s jump shot just before the buzzer that gave North Carolina’s a 75-73 victory over Kentucky in the South Region final– were both played in NBA sized arenas at the Garden and the FedEx arena in Memphis.
The dreadful shooting was compounded by an overly enthusiastic officiating crew that tried to control the big bodies in the paint with a relentless series of whistles that slowed the action, put both teams in the double bonus before the 10 minute mark of the second half, threatening to foul out entire teams and turn the game into a foul shooting contest.
The officials were much too noticeable, never a good thing. Even LeBron James, writing on tweeter, saw it for what it was. “Man, I can’t watch this anymore,” he accurately wrote in a tweet picked up by ESPN. “I would like to see the kids decide who wins this.”
it was too much to hope for.
There were 44 fouls and 52 free throws between the two teams. The Bulldogs committed 14 turnovers. The Zags’ massive 7-0, 300 pound center Przemek Karnowski finished 1 for 8. Junior forward Justin Jackson, Carolina’s best pro prospect, finished 6 for 19. With 10:13 to play, Gonzaga entered the double bonus with 10:13 to play. Gonzaga picked up its seventh personal foul with 13:14 to play. The Zags’ three bigs — Zach Collins, Karnowski and 6-9 power forward Johnathan Williams– all entered the second half with two fouls and the officials robbed two of the most talented front courts in the tournament of the physical intensity we desperately wanted to see. The 7-0 Collins fouled out with 5:03 to play. At the time, Karnowski and Williams both had four fouls and North Carolina’s hefty 6-9 Kennedy Meeks, the hero of Carolina’s semi-final win over Oregon, was dealing with four down the stretch.
“It was an ugly game,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams admitted. “I don’t think either team played exceptionally well offensively. The second half, they shoot 27 percent and we shoot 35 for the game. So I don’t think either team ever got into a real good flow. The fouls were part of it. But just the bigness– that’s a terrible way to say it. My wife’s an English teacher.
“But the game is so big that you get so hyped up, you have to control your emotions and be able to play within yourself. Justin Jackson’s 0 for-9 from the three and he rushed so many of them. In a normal game, he may not have done that. So I think it was the magnitude of the game had a lot to do with it and the defenses at both ends, on both teams.”
After the game ended, the confetti dropped, North Carolina guard Joel Berry II– who finished with 22 points on 19 shots playing on two injured ankles– was announced as the Most Outstanding Player and North Carolina cut down the nets, the NCAA showed its signature video, “One Shining Moment.”
But most of the fans had left the building by then and, other than the Carolina faithful, there was no feeling of excitement in the parking lots.
We can only hope next year will be a better advertisement for the sport and we can have a fitting ending to March madness.