Sometimes, the magical ending never comes. The 2016-17 Gonzaga Bulldogs took us on a beautiful and incredible ride over the last six months, but the ride stopped just short of its intended destination as the Zags fell to the North Carolina Tar Heels 71-65.
On the biggest night in program history, no one would have blamed the Zags for coming out with some jitters in the opening minutes. Instead, they started the game like a team that was playing in its 11th national championship game, not its first.
The battle of two No. 1 seeds lived up to the billing, as the teams exchanged blows for most of the opening stanza. Josh Perkins, UNC’s Joel Berry, and Jordan Mathews teamed up to hit a trio of three-pointers on consecutive possessions. Gonzaga’s shooting from long distance was a major key going into the night, and the success from the arc (5-9 in the first half) helped offset a slow start inside the paint for the normally potent frontcourt.
North Carolina showcased its depth and balance early, as six different players converted field goals inside the first seven minutes of the game. But, Gonzaga’s vaunted defense showed it was capable of frustrating a blue blood program with the same effectiveness as it did the so-called “Sisters of the Poor” from the WCC. UNC was held to 30.7% shooting (11-36) from the field in the first half, its lowest total of the NCAA Tournament.
The Zags were effective at limiting North Carolina’s transition opportunities that are the foundation of their offense and eliminated the three-point line as the Tar Heels shot 4-27 from the arc. Notably, Justin Jackson (6-19 FG) quickly discovered that despite having a significant size advantage over each of Gonzaga’s wings, he was not immune to the stifling defense that had bested dynamic scorers in Sindarius Thornwell, Trevon Bluiett, and Mike Daum before him.
As well as Gonzaga played on defense, how the team controlled the boards was always going to be the biggest indicator of whether it would be cutting down the nets at the end of the night with UNC the best team in the country at manufacturing extra possessions by dominating the offensive boards. While the Zags did a great job of controlling the glass for most of the first half, and narrowly winning the overall rebounding battle (49-46), it wasn’t enough as the turnover disparity (14-4) and foul trouble proved to be too much to overcome.
That the Zags went into halftime with a 35-32 lead despite Przemek Karnowski’s struggles (0-4 FG and 3 turnovers) during the first 20 minutes highlighted the balance that has served them well all season. Josh Perkins, who was held scoreless in the semifinal against South Carolina, was dynamic in the first half as he led all scorers with 13 points.
Unfortunately for Gonzaga, the second half got off to a nightmare start. The Tar Heels capitalized on sloppy play from the Zags to jump out to an 8-0 run in the first two minutes to retake the lead.
In dire need of a spark, Jordan Mathews intercepted a Tar Heel pass and drew a foul on the break. After Zach Collins converted a much-needed 3-point play, Mathews added a three-pointer on a tight angle shot in the corner to nudge Gonzaga back in front 41-40. But with the momentum starting to shift in Gonzaga’s favor, Collins got whistled for a fourth foul. Not long thereafter, both teams found themselves in the bonus with 15 minutes still left to play which clearly disrupted the rhythm of both teams and marred the remainder of the second half.
As the free throw parade that no one in America asked for dragged on, Gonzaga’s offense sputtered to a complete halt. For approximately eight minutes in the middle of the second half, the Zags failed to convert a single field goal with points from the free throw line serving as the only source of water for a team wandering through the offensive desert.
With the minutes ticking away, it was the game’s highest profile players that took matters into their own hands. Berry drained a contested three, and Jackson, who had been held at bay for much of the game began to find some creases in the paint with Gonzaga’s rim-protectors reduced to spectators thanks to foul trouble.
On the other side, it was a gutsy Nigel Williams-Goss who had nearly all the answers as he scored the final eight points for the Zags. However, he was short one final play up his sleeve with the Tar Heels up by three points, and the rest is history.
The loss will undoubtedly hurt. There’s no way it couldn’t. But while the sting of falling short on this night may linger, the memories of this unforgettable season will last forever.
Thank you, Gonzaga basketball. Let’s get back here next season.