GLENDALE, Ariz. – North Carolina, one shot short of the national championship a year ago, made sure a potential heart-breaker did not even get to the rim this time.
The Tar Heels won their sixth national title, beating Gonzaga, 71-65, in the NCAA Tournament finals at University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night, with the key play being a late-game block by center Kennedy Meeks. His rejection of a shot by a driving Nigel Williams-Goss led to a decisive fast-break dunk by Justin Jackson with 12 seconds left.
This was coach Roy Williams’ third national title at North Carolina, the first since 2009. The Tar Heels lost to Villanova last season on a last-second shot by Kris Jenkins.
This year’s title game was a cold-shooting, foul-filled affair, but what the game lacked in aesthetics, it made up for in drama, with the game on the line in the final minute.
“I think this group was tough enough tonight,” Williams said.
Forward Isaiah Hicks made a hanging jumper in the lane with 26 seconds left for a 68-65 North Carolina lead before Williams-Goss, who had scored eight consecutive points for Gonzaga, was blocked on the other end.
UNC point guard Joel Berry II, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, made two free throws with seven seconds left to finish with a game-high 22 points.
“We came out here and we competed” Berry said. “It came down to the last second, but we’re national champs now.”
Gonzaga (37-2) missed nine consecutive shots in the second half and went 8:27 without a basket, but North Carolina didn’t have the offense to deliver a decisive run as it remained a one-possession game for almost all of the second half.
All of the game’s key big men were in some sort of foul trouble in the second half.
Meeks picked up his fourth with 9:42 to go. Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski’s fourth foul came with 8:02 to go. The Bulldgos’ Zach Collins – the hero of a Final Four win over South Carolina – fouled out with 5:03 to go after playing only 14 minutes.
Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, scored 16 points but missed all nine shots from three-point range. Hicks had 13 points and nine rebounds.
Williams-Goss scored 15 points but was just 5 of 17 from the field. Karnowski was 1 of 8 from the field for nine points. Guard Justin Perkins scored 13 – all in the first half.
North Carolina (33-7) shot 35.6 percent. Gonzaga shot 33.9 percent.
It was a disastrous start to the second half for Gonzaga, which led, 35-32, at the break. A steal on the first possession led to an all-alone layup by Berry, and Jackson’s two free throws gave North Carolina the lead 35 seconds into the half.
The Bulldogs committed two turnovers, missed their first five shots and Collins picked up his third foul before coach Mark Few called timeout with 17:15 left, his team down by 40-35. Collins committed his fourth foul with 15:53 left.
But the Bulldogs answered with an 8-0 run of their own, including Karnowski’s first points at the 14:34 mark, and the game settled down into a close battle between two No. 1 seeds.
Gonzaga held a 35-32 halftime lead despite getting little production from Karnowski other than his five rebounds. The 7-foot-1, 300-pound wall of humanity missed all four of his shots, committed three turnovers and picked up two fouls.
The Bulldogs were ahead because they took smarter shots and made more of them than the Tar Heels, who tried the long-distance route to success and made only two of 13 three-pointers in the first half. Jackson was particularly frigid, missing all six of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Gonzaga led by as many as seven points and twice could have stretched its advantage to 10 but missed three-pointers. The Bulldogs limited Meeks to one offensive rebound in the first half, which qualified as a victory considering he had grabbed eight during the Tar Heels’ semifinal victory over Oregon.
That was a big reason Gonzaga held a 25-23 rebounding edge at halftime. Meeks couldn’t do much besides draw the ire of Williams, who slapped the court in disgust after a sideline conversation with his burly senior.
North Carolina was appearing in its 11th national championship game, having it won it in 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009.
The title game featured a matchup of the two winningest active coaches by winning percentage -- Gonzaga’s Few (81.9 percent) and North Carolina’s Williams (79.0 percent).
Williams coached in his 100th NCAA Tournament game; he is 76-24.
About 60 former Gonzaga players attended the game, including John Stockton and Adam Morrison.