When discussing a redemption story, most want to only talk about the beginning and the end. They want to focus on that singular moment that caused “the fall” and jump straight to the completion of the comeback. What North Carolina did can not only be looked at as one of the greatest redemption stories in sports history, but shows just how much hard work and motivation is all it takes to rise back to the mountain top.
Here is how North Carolina went from heartbreak to triumph.
Behind seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, UNC went into the 2016 tourney with a level of confidence that radiated throughout the entire team. Johnson was coming off an ACC Player of the Year season and Paige was playing at a level that put him in the National Player Of the Year race.
Along with the two stars, Carolina had a bevy of solid pieces around them, such as junior’s Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. Also, Justin Jackson was just beginning to rise up as a key piece for the Heels. Blowing through the first two rounds of the tourney made Carolina look like real challengers for the Championship. But when they took care of defensive minded Norte Dame and rolling Syracuse, many thought it was the Heels year.
Facing Villanova in the the championship looked like a “piece of cakes” on paper for the TarHeels. Yes, the Wildcats looked close to unstoppable after their dismantling of Buddy Heild and the Oklahoma Sooners, but Carolina was bigger, faster, and more experienced then their opponent. And their experienced showed itself late in the game. The game was a tug of war match the whole game, seeing both teams go on run after run. Paige was struggling the whole game, until he hit (what would have been) the shot of the shot of the tourney, sinking a impossible three to tie the game up with 4.7 seconds left to go in the game. Carolina was going into overtime and was ready to capture their third champion under coach Roy Williams.
Then Kris Jenkins happened:
After a pendulum swing from elation to heartbreak, the TarHeels had a huge question mark going into the off-season, What was Justin Jackson going to do? Jackson quickly declared for the 2016 NBA drafted and would have left a huge hole in the Heels’ rotation.
With Johnson and Paige leaving and key pieces such as Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson returning, there were real questions on whether or not Carolina could make another run at the ship. With a loaded freshmen class, and only two top 100 players signing to the Heels (17 ranked Tony Bradley and 58 ranked Seventh Wood) Carolina’s hopes for the following season was looking bleak. Then Jackson made his decision to back out of the draft and return for his junior year. That showed not only his dedication to beginning the Heels’ a championship, but Carolina’s sole motivation going into the season, redeem themselves!
It did not take long for the Heels’ to get back in the gym in the offseason. There was a level of focus that the returning players had that began to stir the redemption pot.
Coach Roy Williams told ESPN ” The work began in the offseason. We as a team locked in early and it really showed.”
Berry II was emerging as the one of the many leaders of the team and his drive, along with the determination from everybody of the team, led the Heels’ into the 2017 season with a chip on their shoulder. From the first game of the season, it was clear that UNC planned to overpower teams with their size! Behind 6’1o, 260 pound Kennedy Meeks, 6’9, 242 pound Isaiah Hicks, 6’11 240 pound Tony Bradley, and 6’8 235 pound Luke Maye the Tarheels would have an advantage nearly every night. Theo Pinson (6’6) was the defensive anchor for the wings and Berry II was a dog at the point (even being undersized.)
Jackson (6’8) worked tirelessly in the offseason to refine his shot and turned himself into a three point sniper. His signature floater only got more unstoppable and because of his length, he would give opposing players fits on the defensive side of the ball. UNC was loaded at seemingly every position with both size and veteran presence.
Riding the nations number offensive rebounding margin, the Heels’ finished the season with the best record coming out of the loaded ACC and grabbed the number seed in the South region of the tourney. All season, North Carolina looked scary good, with the ability to beat you on both ends of the floor. Jackson and Berry II spearheaded the offense while Meeks and Hicks where the driving forces on defense. Couple that with their size and strength, the Heel’s owned the paints on both ends.
It did not take long for the Southern regions number one team to get tested. After winning easily in the round of 64, UNC’s next opponent was the Arkansas Razorbacks. all though the backs’ weren’t the greatest offensive team in the tourney, they did have the third ranked defense of the remaining teams. After leading big, UNC took their foot of the gas and allowed the Razorbacks to not only make a comeback, but they took a five point lead with four minutes to go. With the Heels’ season on the brink, they locked down on defense and held Arkansas scoreless for the final three minutes and came away with the 72-65 win.
They would then make quick work of Butler, followed by a matchup with number two ranked Kentucky Wildcats. Behind three lottery caliber players, the Cat’s held one of the nations fastest offenses. In a game that was controlled by Carolina, it was the Kentucky’s Malik Monk who hit two consecutive clutch three pointers to tie the game. Coming to the rescue was Luke Maye, the unlikeliest hero, to hit a game winning jumper to lift his team over Kentucky 75-73.
The Final Four game against the Oregon was owned by big man Kennedy Meeks. With the Ducks being undersized, Meeks took advantage, finishing with 25 points and 14 rebounds (with a career high eight offensive rebounds.) It took two huge offensive rebounds by both Meeks and Pinson to escape past the Ducks 77-76 (UNC did hold the hottest shooting team in the tourney, 51 percent previously, to 37 percent shooting.)
Yes, making it back to the National Championship was a goal for UNC, however it would not matter if they did not redeem themselves from the previous year. Butler was the only team in a decade to go to back-to-back championships, however the Bulldogs’ lost in both appearances. The Heels’ did not want history to repeat itself.
Gonzaga however, posed a true test for UNC. Like the Heels’. The Zags were big and skilled at every position. Behind solid play from Nigel Willam-Goss, and big men Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, Gonzaga looked as complete as the Tarheels (maybe even more.) This would be the first time all season the Heels’ faced a team with the same size as them.
It was not the prettiest game, but it was a slug fest. Like last year, the lead swung back and forth throughout the game. Neither team could really get into a rhythm due to the large amount of foul calls in the second half. Jackson had his worst shooting night of the season, going 0-9 from three and the team as a whole went 4-27 from deep (Berry II hitting the four.) It was Berry who would be huge for the Heels, finishing with a game high 22 points.
With the game close late, the Heels’ used that desire of redemption to make key defensive stops to secure the lead and ultimate complete their quest for a National Championship. No it was not the easiest game to watch, but the Tarheels where battle tested and rallied behind their vets in key moments.
North Carolina is not the most athletic team. They do not shoot the best from three. They are not flashy. They did not have the premier “one-and-done” freshmen. What they had was a reason to play at the highest level game after game. A year ago they were the “Jordan Meme” victims after the shot of the century. This year however, they sit solely at the mountain top, where they have always belonged.