GLENDALE, Ariz. - Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels had to wait a year longer for the program's sixth national championship, but Carolina finally found its way past a small Catholic school in the title game this time.
Unlike a year ago, when Villanova upended North Carolina on a Kris Jenkins shot at the end of regulation, the Heels were able to beat Gonzaga, 71-65, Monday night and make the school's record 20th trip to the Final Four finish off with a win.
The championship game had been billed as a David vs. Goliath matchup between the perennial power and the Zags, who have struggled for equal respect despite consistent accomplishment. It was really anything but.
The two No. 1 seeds both deserved to get exactly this far, and perhaps Gonzaga, which came in with a 37-1 record, was even more deserving. Still, the oddsmakers put Carolina as a two-point favorite - just as they did over Villanova last year - and if some of that was on reputation, well, it wasn't the first time.
Reputation didn't send Gonzaga into an offensive tailspin midway through the second half from which the Bulldogs couldn't really recover. Carolina wasn't shooting well, hadn't shot well all night, but built up an advantage in the paint when Gonzaga got into foul trouble and used that to bang out the victory. A Kennedy Meeks block on Nigel Williams-Goss and an ensuing fastbreak jam by Justin Jackson sealed the outcome in the final seconds.
In winning this title, North Carolina didn't just beat Gonzaga, but beat the clock on an NCAA investigation into academic misconduct that could lead to sanctions before next season. The investigation has been ongoing for nearly four years, and the NCAA notified Carolina of a fresh menu of allegations in December.
None of the current Tar Heels were beneficiaries of improprieties that took place over nearly two decades and allegedly provided students, mostly football and basketball athletes, with access to no-work or no-show classes to help keep them eligible. That many college programs cut a few corners here and there isn't a shock, but if the allegations against Carolina are proved accurate, the Tar Heels were jaywalking straight across the block.
The most tangible recent result, according to Williams, is that recruiting got a lot harder as possible probation has hung over the program. When the Tar Heels got to the Final Four a year ago, it was their first trip since 2009, and they made it with one first-round NBA draft pick on the roster, senior Brice Johnson. This year, Carolina made it back with just one player expected to make an impact at the next level, junior Justin Jackson.
"We recruited 26 McDonald's all-Americans in our first 10 years. And the last three years, we got one," Williams said. "I don't think I got that dumb that quickly."
Instead, Carolina has focused on putting together a deep and experienced team. Last night, the Tar Heels started three juniors and a senior, including four of the five players who were on the court in Houston when Jenkins broke their collective hearts a year ago.
The Heels got their championship with a formula that relied on outscoring rather than out-defending the opposition and on a tenacious ability to rebound, particularly on the offense glass.
That offensive rebounding kept Carolina in the game during a first half when the Tar Heels made just 30.6 percent of their shots and just 2 of 13 three-point attempts. Limiting turnovers and getting second-chance points kept the Heels within three points at the half. It was a formula, once North Carolina began to make more shots, that sealed the outcome.
Williams, who got to cut down the net, and Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who had to watch after his team fell short in its first-ever championship game, are good friends, sharing an affection for basketball, golf and the occasional visit to a casino for relaxation.
Williams told the story this week about the Sweet 16 in Memphis in 2009 when he talked Few into driving down to Tunica, Miss., one night after the players' curfew. They each took an NCAA courtesy car, loaded their assistants in for the ride, and relaxed before the big games.
"We played two or three hours, shot craps," Williams said. "We both lost."
There was more to the story, partly involving the Tennessee Highway Patrol, but the telling part was that both coaches understand a business in which the outcome is not guaranteed. They played the old game once more on Monday, on a raised table 94 feet by 50 feet, and it was Williams who got to leave one step ahead of the law this time. Few departed with his pockets turned inside out instead.
It wasn't really David and Goliath. Both teams were very big this season. Gonzaga might have been the more popular choice across the country, but sometimes the winner has to wait a year.