“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever felt,” said Isaiah Hicks, who made a critical layup with 26 seconds left to put North Carolina ahead by 3. “I haven’t cried like this in years.”
It was the third championship for Coach Roy Williams. “At the end, when you’re watching your kids jump around,” he said, “there’s no better feeling in the world as a coach.”
The Tar Heels (33-7) tried not to make the year all about redemption — even though the players had a season-long group text message chat called “redemption.” Even though point guard Nate Britt, whose half brother, Kris Jenkins, hit the shot that crumbled Carolina last year, has not brought up the game with him. Even though Williams has avoided watching the replay of last year’s ending. Even though Theo Pinson still kept a photo of himself with his head down in the losing locker room as the screen saver on his phone.
The Tar Heels tried to cast this season in a fresh light, even though most of the players who gathered in Williams’s home on Aug. 22 to eat his wife’s dessert were the same players he had in the postgame locker room that night in Houston when he addressed them, struggling for words.
“I felt so inadequate,” Williams said, a yarn-spinner reduced to a mumble.
And so, even though only seven other teams had rebounded from a championship-game loss to return to the title game, and even though their championship-game loss was devastating, here were the Tar Heels, none the worse for wear.
When North Carolina played in Greenville, S.C., in the early rounds of the N.C.A.A. tournament, the Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney met Williams and reminded him that the Tigers had lost in the national championship game and then had come back to win it a year later. “Win it just like we did,” Swinney told him.
North Carolina became the fourth men’s college basketball team to do just that.
“We won’t be remembered as a team that lost in the finals,” Meeks said.
The player who ensured that loss last year, Jenkins, said he was more nervous watching Britt this year than he was playing for Villanova last year.
“Amazing, man,” Jenkins said. “Amazing. That’s all I can say: amazing.”
Gonzaga began its year on a decidedly different note. After losing four starters from a year ago, the Bulldogs pieced together their roster mainly with transfers who arrived last summer unsure what to expect. To build team chemistry, Coach Mark Few organized an overnight camping trip in the woods of northern Idaho. The players protested, but a midnight hike in the darkness helped to establish the bond that would serve them eight months later.
“It was like a family trip,” guard Josh Perkins said. “It paid off for us.”
It was an unusual exercise for Few, who said he was not one to believe in the need for team building. He, too, veered out of his comfort zone — though certainly not for the first time. Once, before a 2009 regional semifinal in Memphis, he received an unusual query late at night from a fellow coach: “You want to go shoot some craps?”
That coach was Williams. At midnight, the two coaches — and two carloads of assistants — went to Tunica, Miss., to gamble nearly until dawn. When Williams was pulled over for speeding on the ride home, he told the police officer to keep an eye out for the Ford Fiesta about 15 minutes behind, the one with Few behind the wheel.
Williams appreciated Few’s work ethic. Few considered Williams a mentor. For many years, Gonzaga ran a press break that it called “Kansas,” because Few had lifted it from what he had seen Williams run with the Jayhawks when he coached them.
“Just copied it, boom,” Few said.
It was a testament to the patience and foresight of Few and the Gonzaga program that saw such potential blooming in the Lilac City — Spokane, Wash. — that they had reached this stage. The matchup Monday was hardly as one-sided as one might have expected based solely on the pedigrees of the programs.
The Tar Heels were the top offensive rebounding team in Division I, and they faced the top defensive rebounding team in Gonzaga. North Carolina possessed a cold-shooting offense against one of the best perimeter defenses. They had a banged-up point guard, Berry, who tried to get the Tar Heels moving in the open floor.
As a David and Goliath narrative, it was just as easy to view the Tar Heels, notwithstanding their five championships, as the underdogs in this fight. Gonzaga no longer benefited from the out-of-nowhere mystique it might have had a decade ago. This was its first Final Four appearance, but the Bulldogs had made the N.C.A.A. tournament 19 consecutive years. They even had a McDonald’s all-American, the freshman Zach Collins, coming off the bench.
Strong outside shooting (5 of 9 from 3-point range) propelled Gonzaga to an early lead. Perkins, who was averaging 5.2 points in five N.C.A.A. tournament games, exploded for 13 first-half points to charge the Bulldogs, who led for nearly 15 minutes of the first half.
But the Tar Heels, who missed 11 of their first 13 3-point attempts, still managed to go into halftime trailing by just 35-32.
In the locker room, Williams lit into his players, bothered by the lack of intensity he saw. Then Hubert Davis, an assistant coach, stood up and spoke softly.
“You guys don’t understand this because you’re kids,” he said. “But very few times in life you get second chances, you get a redo. You do. You actually get a chance to do something about it. What are you going to do?”
North Carolina emerged in the second half re-energized. An instant 8-0 run gave them back the lead, although it would not last long. A 3-pointer by Jordan Mathews put Gonzaga back ahead, 41-40, with 16 minutes 30 seconds to play.
The game yawed back and forth from there. The pace ground to a halt, riddled with foul calls. Both teams were in the bonus with a little less than 13 minutes left.
“It was a slugfest out there,” Few said. “It’s two teams that desperately wanted to be crowned national champions.”
Gonzaga opened the second half shooting 3 of 19 from the field but managed to stay close. After back-to-back 3-pointers by Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams, the North Carolina lead was just 62-60 with 3:08 to play.
“They did everything we asked them to do,” Few said. It would not be enough.
It was 66-65 with a minute remaining when Hicks, who went 1 of 12 from the field Saturday, hung in the air and hit a bank shot to put the Tar Heels up by 3. After a block by Meeks on a wild shot by Williams-Goss, the ball was flipped ahead to Jackson for an easy dunk.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Jackson said.
North Carolina could taste it now, the sensation that so narrowly eluded them a year ago. They were champions. The anguish was over.