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For Cinderella-on-steroids Gonzaga, another devastating NCAA Tournament loss, this time on the game’s biggest stage
- Updated: April 6, 2017
Tears and confetti came streaming down simultaneously at the end of Monday night’s national championship game, both sights familiar to the fans of two of “America’s teams” on opposite ends of the court.
Gonzaga had its heart ripped out again, a few alternate bounces of the ball away from glory, in a game that will be remembered by the latest generation as every bit as painful as the one that left Adam Morrison in tears at center court.
Nigel Williams-Goss held his tears back for just a few moments longer, but they were every bit as raw and biting as Morrison’s were a decade ago.
The pain cuts deep for this program, which had finally reached the game’s biggest stage after years of life first as a euphoric, world-beating underdog and then as an “overrated” fraud, at least in the eyes of some bracket filler-outers.
Painful losses in the NCAA Tournament have now become part of Gonzaga’s identity, just as much as those stunning early upset runs as an upstart.
This loss was especially painful because it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. Like the clock was going to strike midnight and the Bulldogs would still be dancing, the last team dancing, for the first time ever.
Nigel Williams-Goss almost willed them to the title, hitting two clutch shots–one to give Gonzaga a 63-62 edge with 2:25 to go and another to put them up 65-63 with 1:55 left. But then Justin Jackson came up with a three-point play, and North Carolina took a 66-65 lead it would never relinquish. A twisted ankle, a blocked shot and a turnover later, and the title was Carolina’s–again.
The Bulldogs can take some solace in the fact that almost all national championship-winning programs seem to be destined for several gut-wrenching losses before finally breaking through and winning it all.
Even Carolina, a quote-unquote blueblood now with six national titles, experienced its share of March Madness devastation before cementing its place as college hoops royalty.
The man whose name graces the front of their arena, Dean Smith, was once known as the guy who couldn’t win the big one. Like Mark Few, he answered many a question about monkeys. Now, the Smith Center will have six championship banners hanging from its rafters, two sent up there by Smith himself and three by his longtime assistant Roy Williams.
This Tar Heels squad won’t go down in history as one of the school’s all-time best. It might end up with only one or two players on the roster who make any impact in the NBA.
But in an era when college basketball’s best players are lanky, pimpled, wide-eyed freshmen, experience and grit make all the difference come tournament time.
Just like the Villanova team that beat them in last year’s final, and like the Zags, South Carolina, and Oregon, this UNC group was led by cagey upperclassmen.
Justin Jackson was revelatory, probably the guy with the best future at the next level because he’s 6-8 and can shoot the 3. Kennedy Meeks was historically good inside (he joined Ed O’Bannon, Danny Manning, Carmelo Anthony and Larry Bird as the only players to score 25 points and grab 14 boards in the Final Four), and Joel Berry II was steady, level-headed and clutch, scoring a game-high 22 and earning Most Outstanding Player honors.
It was a strange title game, contested once again in a massive football stadium filled with rabid fans but also with about as much empty space and open air as the desert plains surrounding Phoenix.
The result was another round of painful, uncharacteristic shooting performances by three of the four teams (Oregon, UNC and Gonzaga) in two nights.
That, combined with the fact that the officials decided to make the title game about themselves, calling an indefensible 27 fouls in the second half, made this would-be classic a little less so.
It didn’t help Gonzaga’s cause that talented freshman big man Zach Collins was sacked with four fouls early in the second half, neutralizing the team’s best inside scoring threat and forcing them to rely on more outside shots in that wide-open football stadium.
Still, in a game between two programs seemingly destined to see their seasons end in these two diametrically different ways, this seemed like the only result.
A mid-major program like Gonzaga, as mighty as the Bulldogs have become, has still yet to win an NCAA title in the modern era. (Pour one out for Butler). Every champion since 1990 (UNLV) has come from a power-conference school, and you have to go back to Texas Western in 1966 to find one that was unlikely to reach that stage.
Yes, congratulations are in order for the Tar Heels, but for anyone who doesn’t bleed Carolina blue, this tournament won’t be remembered for the rich adding another trophy to their already stacked case.
This tournament was about Gonzaga, the Cinderella on steroids that finally broke through, until they didn’t, and lost yet again in heartbreaking fashion.
The clock finally struck midnight again, but damn it if there weren’t a few seconds when you believed that this time it wouldn’t.