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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Tar Heels crowned 2017 NCAA Champions

FIVETHIRTYEIGHT / SCREENSHOT

University of North Carolina conquers Gonzaga to capture sixth title in school history

March Madness tipped off three weeks ago. UC Davis, among 67 other national teams, began a quest for the ultimate goal: a National Championship. In the end it came down to a battle between a Final Four newcomer in the form of the Gonzaga Bulldogs and a perennial college basketball powerhouse, the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Bulldogs hung tough for the entire game but ultimately came away empty-handed as the Tar Heels seized another championship with a 71-65 victory.

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament began on March 14 with the first four teams participating in a series of play-in games to decide who moved into the tournament’s round of 64. This aspect is part of a recent change to the tournament to a 68-team field from the previous 64. These play-in games allow four more teams to make the tournament while preserving the famed sweet sixteen, elite eight, final four breakdown. Fresh off of their Big West Championship, the UC Davis Aggies won an automatic bid to take part in the play-in games.

The Aggies played their first ever NCAA tournament game against North Carolina Central University. Playing for a chance to move into the round of 64, UC Davis came out and played its hard-nosed defense, leading to the program’s first ever NCAA tournament win, 67-63.

On March 16, the round of 64 took place and the true tournament began. While there weren’t as many of the shocking upsets fans have come to expect from March Madness, there were a few games that stuck out. The Cinderella story of the seventh-seed Michigan Wolverines continued as they dispatched their opponent, tenth-seeded Oklahoma State. The Wolverines had been a long shot to make the tournament before catching fire and cruising to Big Ten Championship win. Additionally, twelfth-seed Middle Tennessee State upset fifth-seed Minnesota. While this shocked many fans, just one year prior the Blue Raiders upset the second-seed Michigan State Spartans in a similar scenario.

UC Davis, a sixteen seed, squared up against the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. With Kansas being one of the top four teams in the tournament, the Jayhawks were heavily favored. Regardless, the campus and city of Davis tuned in to cheer on the Aggies. The Aggies played well at the beginning of the game, but halfway through the first half the Jayhawks raced to a massive lead, resulting in a 100-62 win for Kansas.

The round of 32 was marked by the matchup between the eight-seed Wisconsin Badgers and the one-seed Villanova Wildcats. The Wildcats defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels in last year’s championship game on a stunning buzzer-beater. With that in mind, Villanova looked to become the first team to repeat as champions since the 2007 Florida Gators. Wisconsin had something to say about that. The Badgers rode the timely shooting of senior forward Nigel Hayes and came out with the 65-62 win and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

The Sweet Sixteen featured a matchup of arguably the two most successful college basketball programs ever, UCLA and the University of Kentucky. A three and a two-seed respectively, the matchup highlighted several superstar freshman. The Bruins led with their duo of freshman, guard Lonzo Ball and forward T.J. Leaf, who were matched up against the Wildcats freshman, guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox and forward Bam Adebayo. Ball had a rare off night and the rest of the Bruins could not pick up the slack as Kentucky triumphed with a 86-75 win.

In the Elite Eight, the upstart seven-seed South Carolina Gamecocks beat a talented four-seed Florida team 77-73. With the victory, the Gamecocks reached their first Final Four in school history. The Gamecocks were lead by two in-state stars, senior guard Sindarius Thornwell and sophomore guard P.J. Dozier.

The Final Four came down to the University of North Carolina versus the University of Oregon and Gonzaga University versus the University of South Carolina. North Carolina versus Oregon proved to be the game of the night, as the game was decided in the final seconds. With the Tar Heels up by one point and five seconds remaining in the contest, the Tar Heels missed four straight free throws, but on each of the free throw sets the Tar Heels managed to corral the offensive rebounds and hold out for the 77-76 win. In a bizarre ending, North Carolina won via their ability to rebound rather than to score.

With Gonzaga winning its semifinal against the Gamecocks of South Carolina, the stage was set for the national title between Gonzaga and North Carolina. North Carolina’s path to the championship was driven by a hunger for redemption. The Tar Heels were beaten by Villanova in the 2016 Championship on a buzzer-beating three-pointer. For Gonzaga, the west coast squad was compelled by its need to prove the doubters wrong. Despite several successful seasons under head coach Mark Few, the team has often been viewed as soft, due to playing in the weaker WAC conference. With the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ first Final Four under their belt, they had more than proven their ability to fight with the big-time schools.

The Bulldogs controlled the majority of the first half behind the smart play of junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss and the poor shooting of North Carolina. At the half, Gonzaga led the Tar Heels 35-32. In the second half, the Tar Heels came out firing. With its defensive intensity cranked up, North Carolina forced a series of turnovers and swung the momentum in its favor. The rest of the second half was marred by bad shooting from both teams and poor judgement by the referees. The teams combined for an absurd 52 free throws. The final minute, however, was decided by the players rather than the referees. With the Tar Heels leading 68-65, Williams-Goss brought the ball up the floor and raced into the lane, putting up a shot that was emphatically blocked by North Carolina senior forward Kennedy Meeks. Meeks’ block led to a two-handed slam by senior forward Justin Jackson. Down by five, the Bulldogs panicked and threw a wild pass up the court which was intercepted by the Tar Heels. In a matter of seconds, the one-possession ball game was blown open by North Carolina and Gonzaga could do nothing but watch as the Tar Heels put the finishing touches on their redemption, a 71-65 victory.

Congratulations to North Carolina Tar Heels, the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champions!

 

Written by: Rowan O’Connell-Gates — sports@theaggie.org

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