Leland Stein III

North Carolina gets Deliverance and a title

In sports column on April 10, 2017 at 2:45 am
nc title

North Carolina celebrates its methodical victory over Gonzaga.

By Leland Stein III

GLENDALE, Az. – This was my 21st Final Four and I have to interject that this collection of college basketball teams assembled together in Phoenix were extremely unique.

In the 2017 Big Dance there were three rookies and one veteran. This Phoenix congregation of three teams – Gonzaga, South Carolina and Oregon – had one Final Four appearance among them. Oregon proudly claimed that lone one, which unproudly happened 78 years ago in the very first NCAA title game – when the NIT was a much more prestigious tournament.

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Leland Stein III

It all started in November with 351 teams, and now, five months later it was down to three Final Four rookies and one vet. Make no mistake about it however, as all four of these teams were deserving of being one of the Final Four contestants for the national title. Each team here implemented, followed unique, and in some cases unlikely, paths to Phoenix. But all four teams had a singular moment that cemented its Final Four status.

Finally, March Madness aficionados were left with two, after Gonzaga outlasted a scrappy South Carolina squad, and, North Carolina had squeezed by Oregon.

In the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship game before 76,168 we were left with one traditional powerhouse, North Carolina, and, Gonzaga in its 20th NCAA tournament appearance reaching its first Final Four in program history.

The three rookies getting to the final game weekend was an awesome story, but 2017 was not to be the year of Cinderella. With methodical precision the North Carolina Tar Heels (33-7) did just enough to win the national title overcoming Gonzaga 71-65.

The victory for the Tar Heels was sweet redemption, after they lost in 2016 on a last second shot from eventual champion Villanova.

“I put it (redemption) on the locker room up on the board,” coach Roy Williams exclaimed in the post-game euphoric interview. “They wanted redemption and my guys bought into it. They played tough, although neither team played their best, but both were competitive and battling through it all.”

Added Tar Heels center Kennedy Meeks: “It hurt badly last year losing, so we dedicated ourselves to ensuring we produced a better result than last year. I told the fellas that we could get back and get a better result and we fought through all the fouls and adversity to get it done.”

Unfortunately each team did not only have to battle each other, the referees interjected themselves into the fray and turned the game into a stop-and-start ugly contest.

The referees called 27 fouls in the second half, completely shattering the flow of the game and sent North Carolina’s

Meeks, Gonzaga’s 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, and, a horde of others to the bench in foul trouble.

The game “featured” 52 free throws. Both teams were in the bonus with 13 minutes left. Somehow, Collins was the only player to foul out.

“It sucks that I fouled out this important game,” Collins said. “Look I am going to put it on me. I had been having some foul issues all year, but I thought I had worked hard to get my defensive effort under control. The referees did not see it that way I guess.”

I will never understand why or how the NCAA allows the referees to dominate a national title game like they did. No one came to the game to see them blow whistles and run over to the scorer’s table to give a number of the supposed fouler.

No matter, Williams got his third championship, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp.

“When I think of Coach Smith, there’s no question,” Williams interjected with sincere enthusiasm. “I don’t think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him. But we got three because I’ve got these guys with me and that’s all I care about right now – my guys.”

Added Joel Berry II, the 2017 NCAA Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player: “Sure it feels great to get Coach his third title. With all the ups and downs this win was awesome. It was a complete 180 degrees from last year that feeling of losing. I cannot describe how excited it is to be on the other end of this. Coach told us to remember how we all felt last year so we went out and gave it our all.”

In spite of the loss, Gonzaga has a lot to feel good about. It had made 20 tournament appearances and finally reached the Final Four for the first time — becoming the first West Coast Conference team to advance that far since San Francisco made its third straight trip in 1957. The Zags closed out their season with a lofty 37-2 record.

Also, Phoenix became the first far west city to host a Final Four since Seattle in 1995. That was a memorable one for me as I was there to watch the UCLA Bruins claimed their 11th national basketball championship.

In the end Zags coach Mark Few handled the referees with more class than I ever could. Taking the high road, calling the refs “three of the best officials in the entire country,” and insisting they did a fine job. Political correctness at its finest and probably the right call, because what else could he do? Nothing!!!!!

After all, his Bulldogs a small school in the equally small West Coast Conference, tried to keep the big picture in mind. Twenty years ago, this sort of run looked virtually impossible. With less than 2 minutes left, they had the lead in the national title game, but on this day in the desert Cinderella could not crash into the champion’s realm.

“We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn’t break,” junior forward Johnathan Williams said. “We had a great season and gave ourselves a chance to win it all, but we just came up a little short.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

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