GLENDALE, Ariz. —Senior center Kennedy Meeks, the most powerful player on North Carolina’s 2017 NCAA championship team, approached the sideline and buried coach Roy Williams in a sweaty hug nearly identical to one presented by Tar Heels legend Tyler Hansbrough near the end of the final game in 2009, the last time the Tar Heels won the title.
There was one difference, though. Hansbrough had just been removed from a blowout victory when he wrapped his arms around Williams in front of the Carolina bench. Meeks still was in the game against Gonzaga with time on the clock. The game was over, but it wasn’t over.
“I told him to finish the game,” Williams said. “That’s what I told him.”
Meeks did not apologizefor his prematurity.
“I was just so excited, man, I didn’t even know what to do,” he said. “I just knew that I had to hug somebody.”
The gentleman Meeks embraced on that sideline is now, beyond debate, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the college game. Following the Heels’ 71-65 escape of Gonzaga, this is the list of men who’ve won more NCAA basketball championships than Williams: John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp. This is the list of men who’ve won as many: Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight and … yeah, that’s all of them.
He ranks fourth in Final Four appearances. This was his ninth, placing him behind North Carolina’s Dean Smith with 11 and Wooden and Krzyzewski, who both have 12. This season also included Williams becoming the 11th Division I coach to cross the 800 mark in career victories.
This was different than Williams’ two previous championships, though. It came 12 months after losing the 2016 championship on a buzzer-beating shot by Villanova's Kris Jenkins, which helped provide the motivation to push through the challenge of preparing for, playing and then finishing the college basketball season.
The 2017 Heels’ margin of victory (11.1 points on average) was narrower than in 2005 (13.6) or with the devastating 2009 team (20.2). This team had four tournament games that were in doubt inside the final two minutes. In 2005, it was three, and the 2009 team had none.
Remove the 39-point blowout the Tar Heels enjoyed against No. 16 seed Texas Southern this year, and the average margin of the remaining five games was only 5.6 points.
“They're all really sweet,” Williams said. “I mean, 351 teams start thinking that ‘Maybe we could do that.’ Some of them more realistic than others, but even the ones that have no chance, they think of that moment. So they're all extremely special. I've been very, very lucky. But I'd say this one is probably more special because it's been a journey for the last three or four years of trying to do something, trying to do something, trying to do something.”
The Heels were not more talented than some of the teams they faced during the season and at least one of the teams —Kentucky — they defeated in the tournament.
They were more complete than some other teams, though, with depth inside and on the wings, with a point guard capable of running the team, getting to the basket and making 3-point shots. The one lingering question about the Heels entering the tournament was whether they were willing to compete to get where they wanted to go. They responded to the doubt they’d created by recovering from late deficits in games against Arkansas, Kentucky and finally Gonzaga, which led by a basket inside the final twominutes.
Williams was furious with the team at halftime against the Zags and spent a lot of the break yelling at them. "He was pretty pissed," senior forwrd Isaiah Hicks said.
During the TV timeout with 3:08 left and North Carolina ahead of the Zags by two points, however, Williams told the Heels theywere going to win and asserted to his players if they’d been promised that situation back when they began practice in September they’d have eagerly accepted that arrangement.
“But we had to play our butts off the last threeminutes,” Williams said. “It worked out.”
The Tar Heels shot 35.6 percent from the field. Those players not named Joel Berry missed a combined 14 3-pointers without making one.
"I shot the ball like I had never shot a shot in a gym," said All-American Justin Jackson, who was 0 of 9 on 3s.
They were, somewhat improbably, outrebounded by the Zags. But they committed only four turnovers in 40 minutes. It was the one category in which they indisputably held up under championship pressure.
Williams remembered the first time he officially gathered with this team, on the first day of fall classes, following a 12-minute run that is an annual rite for the Tar Heels. He had them over to his house and issued a prescient declaration: “'In this room right here is a group that has a chance to win the national championship. But you have to pay the price.' It wasn’t pretty, but we did a lot of good things.”
What also separated this title from the previous two was how close the Tar Heels came a year ago, losing on a buzzer-beater to Villanova, as well as the NCAA investigation into academic irregularities at UNC that has persisted nearly three years and that surely cost the Heels recruits —as it turns out, recruits they apparently didn’t need —and some dreadful publicity.
“I wish it got no attention here, because this should be about the kids. I wish it got no attention,” Williams said. “But I know it's out there. But the last three or four years have been very hard. I told you, people have questioned my integrity, and that means more to me than anything.
“I know that we did nothing wrong. I know that I did nothing wrong. I've been investigated 77 times, it seems like. And everybody came to that conclusion. But there were some mistakes made at my university that I'm not happy about, either.
“It's been harder to recruit. We've lost about everybody that we tried because the sensationalism of the newspapers. I mean, I had to start defending myself four years ago. And I used to say that I hoped that it was over with before I retired. Now I'm saying I hope it's over with before I die.”
Williams addressed all that in the press conference following the game, but on the court as he waited for his turn to cut down the net his voiced cracked as he acknowledged his third title was one more than Smith, the man who gave him his college break by hiring him as an assistant coach in 1978.
“I’m not Dean Smith. Never have been. Never will be. He was so much better,” Williams said. “But I’ve had teams that have taken me and presented the greatest gift a coach can have, is to see the looks on your guys’ faces when they’ve accomplished this. Kennedy Meeks hugging me, Isaiah hugging me —there’s nothing better than that.”