AN unwatchable game turned into a beautiful night for the University of North Carolina (UNC), who turned a free-throw contest into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship it's been waiting an entire year to celebrate.
Justin Jackson delivered the go-ahead three-point play with 1:40 left in the final on Tuesday (AEST) and North Carolina pulled away for a 71-65 win over Gonzaga that washed away a year's worth of heartache.
It was, in North Carolina's words, a redemption tour - filled with extra time on the practice court and in the weight room, all fuelled by a devastating loss in last year's title game to Villanova on the buzzer.
"I wanted to see this confetti fall on us and we're the winners," said Carolina's Joel Berry II, who led the Tar Heels with 22 points. "We came out here and we competed. It came down to the last second, but we're national champs now."
In the aftermath of the win there were plenty of references to an infamous Michael Jordan moment from earlier this year.
UNC is Jordan's alma mater and he became the butt of jokes after speaking to the crowd at a North Carolina football game in March. At half-time against Duke, he said: "The ceiling is the roof" for the college's sports teams.
He was likely trying to say something along the lines of "the sky's the limit" but got his metaphors mixed up. He obviously wanted people to know UNC had the potential to be the best, and on Tuesday, the university's basketball team proved him right.
UNC fans in the crowd started chanting "ceiling is the roof" and social media got in on the fun. He got the words wrong, but Jordan knew what he was talking about.
To say everything went right for UNC in the final stages of the tournament would not be the truth. The Tar Heels (33-7) followed a terrible shooting night in the semi-final with an equally ice-cold performance in the final - going four for 27 from beyond the three-point arc and 26 for 73 overall.
Gonzaga, helped by eight straight points from Nigel Williams-Goss, took a two-point lead with 1:52 left, but the next possession was the game-changer. Jackson took a zinger of a pass under the basket from Theo Pinson and converted the shot, then the ensuing free throw to take the lead for good. Moments later, Williams-Goss twisted his right ankle and could not elevate for a jumper that would've given the Bulldogs the lead.
Isaiah Hicks made a basket to push the lead to three, then Kennedy Meeks, in foul trouble all night, blocked Williams-Goss' shot and Jackson got a slam on the other end to put some icing on NCAA title number six for the Tar Heels.
UNC coach Roy Williams got his third title, putting him one ahead of his mentor Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Adolph Rupp and Mike Krzyzewski.
"I think of Coach Smith, there's no question," Williams said. "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."
Berry recovered from ankle injuries to lead the Tar Heels, but needed 19 shots for his 22 points. Jackson had 16 on a six-for-19 night and, overall, the Tar Heels actually shot a percentage point worse than they did in Sunday's win over Oregon.
Thank goodness for free throws. They went 15 for 26 from the line and, in many corners, this game will be remembered for these three men: Michael Stephens, Verne Harris and Mike Eades, the referees who called 27 fouls in the second half, completely busted up the flow of the game and sent Meeks, Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins and a host of others to the bench in foul trouble.
With 8:02 left, Berry got called for a foul for (maybe) making contact with Karnowski and stripping the ball from the big man's hands. But as Karnowski was flailing after the ball, he grabbed Berry around the neck and, after a long delay, got called for a flagrant foul of his own. That resulted in four straight free throws, a 52-all tie and booing from every corner of the massive Phoenix University Stadium.
- with AP