North Carolina’s two best players on Monday night? The duo that went 3-for-26 on Saturday. Naturally.
It was a fitting way for the Tar Heels, who successfully completed their redemption tour in a 71-65 nail-biter over Gonzaga, to claim their sixth national championship.North Carolina has had more talented teams during Roy Williams’ tenure. But the 2017 version is the most mentally tough. It would have been easy to crumble under the pressure – with the figurative Kris Jenkins ghost hanging over the Heels like a cloud – and the actual Kris Jenkins sitting behind their bench.
Last year’s outcome was on North Carolina’s mind – but not in a crippling, self-defeating way. Instead, it was motivational. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Tar Heel assistant coach Steve Robinson used it as fuel in the under-four media timeout.
“Coach Rob just said, ‘remember that moment and how we felt last year. And we don't want that again. So we just gotta give it our all,’” Joel Berry said after the game.
“And that's the moment where we locked in. And we went out there and just gave it our all, literally. And we were able to come out with the win."
This entire season is a testament to the Tar Heels’ resilience. An ACC regular season crown. Thirty-three wins. A national championship.
But in the span of 40 minutes, two players encapsulated everything UNC has done this year – Berry and Isaiah Hicks. Berry, playing with two sprained ankles, went 2-for-14 against Oregon. Hicks went 1-for-12. On Monday, each shined – Berry scored 22 points and hit several big shots late. Hicks scored 13 points and connected on his last four attempts, including a huge bucket in the lane to give UNC a three-point lead.
“Isaiah, my boy has been struggling like a dog, but tonight he looked like a greyhound there a couple of times there a couple times there at the end,” Williams said. “Told him this morning, your last high school game you won the state championship. And he had like 34 points, 30 rebounds. I told him I would take that tonight.
“He didn't really give that to us, but he was big for us and made a couple of big, big baskets down the stretch.”
On one of the most important possessions of the season, a Hicks isolation in the high post didn’t seem like an optimal choice. Kennedy Meeks had been better in the NCAA tournament. Justin Jackson was the best player on either team. Berry was beginning to find his stroke.
Instead, Hicks went to work on Johnathan Williams – no slouch of a post defender – with supreme confidence. He nailed a difficult shot; if you’ll recall, Hicks bricked about as easy of a layup as you’ll see in the beginning of the Oregon game. He never recovered.
Monday night was a new night.
"Everybody still had faith in me," Hicks said. "Everybody was always encouraging me. I felt like I was always trying. I feel like, when you try, good thing is eventually going to happen. That's all I was doing."