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What a difference a year makes.
Last year, the Tar Heels lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds to Villanova. This year, the Tar Heels fought their way back to the championship game — another back-and-forth battle that lasted until the last ticks of the game clock.
But this time, “the confetti was falling on us,” as Joel Berry, MVP of the Final Four, said minutes after the Tar Heels’ 71-65 victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The redemption tour is finally over, and the Tar Heels have a sixth NCAA national championship banner to hang in the Smith Center.
When Justin Jackson made a dunk to put Carolina up by 5 points with seconds left, hundreds of the 9,000-plus fans watching the game on the video screens of the Smith Center rushed the court. And when a Berry free throw and a smack down by Kennedy Meeks iced the game, elated — and relieved — Tar Heels bounced to “Jump Around.”
As Marcus Paige ’16, whose clutch basket almost won the championship game for the Heels last year, tweeted early in this close match, “Watching as a fan is way more stressful than playing.”
Fans rushing to Franklin Street — an estimated 55,000 of them — to celebrate could pick up Carolina blue or black 2017 national championship T-shirts on the way there, thanks to a Student Stores supply for sale just after the buzzer sounded.
Rain earlier in the day threatened to dampen Franklin Street festivities but stopped before the midnight celebration. A rooftop view of the corner of Columbia and Franklin streets showed lots of Carolina blue and flashing smartphones but little pavement.
“I told you, man! I told you, man!” one student shouted just as a nearby group burst into chants of “U-N-C! U-N-C!” What predominated the soundscape were wordless whoops of pure joy.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, Coach Roy Williams ’72 and the men’s basketball team cut down the nets, and Chancellor Carol L. Folt posed for photos holding the championship trophy.
This was the second time that Carolina played in back-to-back championship games. The first was 1981 and 1982. As it was this time, it was a defeat followed by a victory. And Carolina’s 2009 championship followed a loss in the semifinals in ’08 — that time, the word “Redemption” accompanied the Review’s May/June 2009 cover story.
“It’s a back to back,” said lifelong fan Lanotis Rosser, who missed the 2016 championship but made his way to Phoenix in 2017. “That’s so rare you got to take advantage of it. You’ve got to come pull for the Heels.”
Sportscasters made much of this being a record 20 appearances in the Final Four for Carolina, but the Heels knew that four wasn’t the magic number. They wanted No. 1.
UNC will hold a welcome reception for the 2017 NCAA champion men’s basketball team on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Smith Center. Doors will open at 5 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public. Concessions and Final Four merchandise will be available.
— Susan Hudson ’84, University Gazette