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North Carolina’s Ceiling Was the Roof

Joel Berry II overcame his bad ankles — and some brutal officiating — to lead the Tar Heels past Gonzaga, win a national title, and lift Roy Williams into rarefied coaching air

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I promise I won’t complain about the referees. That wouldn’t be fair to the North Carolina fans who just want to celebrate their team winning its sixth national championship by beating Gonzaga 71–65 on Monday night. Those fans deserve better than to be reminded that the Tar Heels were bad all tournament, and that their victory over the Zags capped off what will go down as the least memorable national championship run of my lifetime. And I certainly don’t want to stir the pot by saying that Gonzaga was the better team or that four of Carolina’s past five titles should have asterisks next to them, since the 2005 and 2017 titles belong to the refs, the 1993 title can be attributed to Chris Webber’s timeout, and the 1982 title came as a result of Fred Brown’s pass to James Worthy. Making statements like that would be unprofessional and, dammit, I’m nothing if not professional.

Instead I’ll focus on Joel Berry II, who was somehow at once both an unlikely and obvious hero for North Carolina. Coming into the title game, the junior point guard had two bad ankles and had basically played one good game in the past month, placing him somewhere between fifth and seventh on my list of guys who I thought had the greatest chance to emerge as the best player in the national championship. Berry looked sluggish and was a borderline liability in the Heels’ 77–76 win over Oregon on Saturday, a performance that didn’t bode well heading into Monday considering Nigel Williams-Goss — one of the five best point guards in college basketball — was expected to guard him. Instead, Williams-Goss was assigned to Justin Jackson (more on this later), the Zags assumed Berry wouldn’t be much of a factor, and Berry made them pay by single-handedly carrying the Carolina offense in stretches. He finished with 22 points (on 7-of-19 shooting), six assists, and a Most Outstanding Player trophy as he added his name to the list of unlikely heroes in recent national title games, joining Phil Booth, Grayson Allen, Luke Hancock, Doron Lamb, and LeAnn Rimes (whose national anthem was the only highlight of the 2011 championship).

Then again, Berry swore all week that his ankles weren’t as bad as everyone made them out to be, so maybe we should have seen this coming. Even as Jackson ascended to become a consensus All-American and the ACC Player of the Year, Berry was consistently the Tar Heels’ most important cog this season. That’s partly because Carolina’s point guard is always the linchpin of its system, and it’s partly because Berry’s skill set was desperately needed on a roster that otherwise lacked outside shooting and playmakers who could penetrate. As soon as UNC won the opening tip and Williams-Goss latched onto Jackson, Gonzaga head coach Mark Few sent a message: For the Heels to win a national championship, they would need a big game from Berry. And while things were far from pretty, Berry remained surprisingly aggressive throughout, stepping up as his team’s only outside shooting threat all night. He delivered exactly the game that Carolina needed.

North Carolina (Getty Images)
North Carolina (Getty Images)

By the way, as someone who has been on the losing end of a national championship, believe me when I say that the what-if game will haunt Few for the rest of his life. That’s not to say that he made any egregious mistakes or coached a bad game, even if trusting freshman big man Zach Collins to manage his foul trouble was an enormous risk that ultimately backfired. It’s just that when you come that close to college basketball immortality and fall short, the little things will keep you up at night. (My big regret from the 2007 title game: Not checking myself in when I have the wettest jump shot on God’s green earth and when my teammates went 4-for-23 from the 3-point line.)

If I’m Few, I second-guess the decision to put Williams-Goss on Jackson. It obviously gave Gonzaga what it was looking for in the sense that Jackson was off-balance all night, going 0-for-9 from deep. But the trade-off was that Williams-Goss seemed gassed on the offensive end of the floor. If Few had just played things straight and let Williams-Goss take Berry, Berry probably would have laid an egg and Williams-Goss likely would have given the Zags more on offense (something they badly needed in the second half) since he wouldn’t have had to work as hard on defense. And yeah, in that scenario, Jackson probably goes off on Josh Perkins or whoever Gonzaga would have had guarding him. But Jackson still got his with Williams-Goss draped all over him. I mean, it felt like Williams-Goss had the clamps on Jackson all night, yet he scored 16 points and shot 6-of-10 from inside the 3-point line.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 with this stuff, which is why I don’t think Gonzaga should beat itself up too badly. The Zags mostly kept Carolina off the boards, winning the rebounding battle 49 to 46, and limited transition opportunities; those are the two keys for any Tar Heels opponent. In the end, this game devolved into a choppy foul fest that lacked any semblance of rhythm, Gonzaga missed a devastating number of good looks around the basket, and it fell victim to one too many whistles and bounces that didn’t go its way. (To be fair, the Carolina defense should be credited for causing most of the Zags’ problems.) It would have been cool to see Gonzaga win the first West Coast national title in 20 years, silence the doubters once and for all, and forever change the landscape of college basketball (which might still happen, although obviously not to the same degree that it would have had the Zags won). But North Carolina avenging its heartbreak from a year ago as Kris Jenkins sat behind the Tar Heels bench was really cool, too.

One final thought: I know that Carolina fans don’t want to talk about it, but I wouldn’t be doing my job as a sportswriter if I didn’t bring up pointless debates for people to argue about on the internet. So I’ll just mention that Roy Williams now has more national championships (three) than Dean Smith (two) as UNC’s head coach, and is on pace to finish his career with more wins and a higher winning percentage. I’m not saying that we need to start carving Ol Roy’s mug into the college basketball coaching Mount Rushmore. I’m just saying that we’ve reached the point where deciding on the five best coaches in college basketball history is suddenly a challenge, a notion that would have sounded absurd as recently as two years ago.

We can save that arguing for when Roy finally hangs it up for good, though. Until then, congratulations to North Carolina for winning its first national championship in eight years, and congratulations to college basketball officials for protecting their “worst referees in all of sports” turf. Most importantly, congratulations to all of you for enduring one of the most brutal national title games of all time.