The North Carolina-Gonzaga Survival Fight

North Carolina’s 71-65 win over Gonzaga for the national championship last night won’t be a game that will be sent to the archives as a masterpiece. There are a number of ways to tell the story of the poor quality of play, but these numbers will suffice…

*Joel Berry was named Most Outstanding Player. He deserved it, and in fact was the only logical choice. Berry still shot only 4-for-13 from three-point range. For the Final Four overall, including Saturday, he shot 9-for-33 from the floor.

*North Carolina shot 15-for-26 from the free throw line. Gonzaga wasn’t much better at 17-for-26, and the Zags free throws seemed worse because the normally excellent Nigel Williams-Goss missed four of his eight attempts.

I was watching the game with a friend and said that this game was going to be defined more by which team walked away with more regrets. Or in political terms, it was the Trump vs. Hillary of championship events—hard to find much to defend in either one.

But while neither team had their best game, the sheer effort and intensity poured on this Monday Night stage was, as it always is, fun to watch. A poorly played title game isn’t unheard of—watch Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, an eyesore between the Lakers and Celtics as Exhibit A. As a fan, I’m not necessarily looking look for artistry, just effort and excitement. The Tar Heels and Zags each delivered.

What I’m really not looking for though, is officiating to completely take over a game and that’s exactly what happened in the second half last night in Phoenix.

Before going on, I want to make one thing clear—a diatribe against the officials is not meant to take anything away from North Carolina. While I was strongly rooting for Gonzaga last night and had plenty of reason to gripe, Tar Heel fans had their own reasons to feel like the game was being taken away from them.

In the second half alone, I can recall three instances of looking at my friend, who was also pulling for the Zags and us agreeing “We got a break there.” On a side note, I’m not sure how Gonzaga became “we”, given that we live in southeastern Wisconsin and root for the Badgers, but that’s another story entirely.

The most flagrant bad call against North Carolina wasn’t a foul, but a ruling that a missed three-pointer by Gonzaga’s Jordan Mathews had grazed the defender’s hand before going out of bounds. Replay shows it clearly hadn’t and the initial call on the floor correctly gave the ball to the Tar Heels. One referee came running in from behind and overturned the call. It was a case of certitude covering up ineptitude and when Nigel Williams-Goss then immediately hit a three, Gonzaga had a 60-59 lead. The blown call nearly cost Carolina a title.

What the real problem with the officiating was is that it completely shut down the game. Every piece of contact was being whistled. Nobody could generate any flow. Gonzaga’s front line was in foul trouble, and I firmly believe if Zach Collins in particular, isn’t shut down by the officials, we’re looking at a different ballgame. This was a classic example of someone needing to tell officials that no one was tuning in to watch them.

Beyond the officials taking the game into their own hands, the biggest takeaway I get from this game is just how important it is to have a program that can get back to this point repeatedly. This wasn’t the best North Carolina team I’ve seen—maybe not even in the top ten over the last forty years. But as a program, when you keep knocking on the door like they do, you’re going to win your share.

Gonzaga is in a situation similar to what Wisconsin was two years ago after the loss to Duke. They have every reason to feel like they could win a seven-game series with their opponent. They even have a reason to feel a little jobbed on how the game was officiated and certainly their best players didn’t have even average games. But that’s basketball. The North Carolinas and Dukes of the world have all lost their share of games like that as well, so success is about constantly giving yourself opportunity.

I won’t try and claim any special love for the University of North Carolina basketball program. But their championship last night was a testimony to persistence. And if it wasn’t the most artful thing to watch—well, that’s on the men on the striped shirts.