Zags fail to reach zenith with uncharacteristic mistakes in national title game

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few directs Nigel Williams-Goss during the national championship game against North Carolina at University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday, April 3, 2017, in Glendale. (Photo by Tyler Drake/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE – The same sequence played itself out three separate times over the course of Monday night for Gonzaga – poor execution, a change of possession and an easy Tar Heels bucket.

Those six points hung on the scoreboard at University of Phoenix Stadium almost as heavily as the 110 years as a program it took for the Bulldogs to reach this point — the pinnacle of college basketball — as No. 1-seed Gonzaga fell, 71-65, to the No. 1-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in the national championship game.

Each time it happened, it came at a critical moment — the first play of the game, the first play of the second half and in the game-defining sequence.

With 21.7 seconds remaining, Gonzaga came out of a timeout down three points and looking to get the ball to Wooden Award finalist Nigel Williams-Goss.

Williams-Goss took the inbound, drove around Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski and attempted a layup that was blocked by North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks. Joel Berry II grabbed the ball and sent it quickly up to Justin Jackson for the game-sealing dunk.

“I knew he had attacked the basket the last couple times,” Meeks said. “He hit some big-time shots and that’s the type of player he is, so I just tried to be there for Theo (Pinson), who was guarding him, and God took control after that.”

Williams-Goss may have lacked his typical burst to lob his floater over Meeks after re-injuring his right ankle with 1:25 remaining. He was in the midst of a scoring burst during the closing moments before tweaking his ankle — the same one he’d rolled in the national semifinal. He finished 5-for-17 from the floor with 15 points and nine boards, but had scored eight points in a two-and-a-half minute span before the injury.

“Sprained it pretty good,” Williams-Goss said. “It was still a little bit weak. Stepped on it wrong and rolled it. But my adrenaline was rushing. Like I said last game, nothing was going to stop me from finishing out this game.”

Williams-Goss and the Bulldogs’ sputtering started from the opening tip.

“It was a slugfest out there,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who was in his 18th season but first Final Four. “It’s two teams that desperately wanted to be crowned national champion. And I think to be so close for us is a temporarily crushing blow right now.”

The Bulldogs’ first possession of the game ended on a quick turnover and a dunk from North Carolina’s Theo Pinson. Josh Perkins’ pass was intercepted for an easy layup for Berry to start the second half. Then came Meeks’ blocked shot against Williams-Goss.

Gonzaga accomplished everything Few said they needed to against the Tar Heels. The Bulldogs rebounded, winning the battle on the boards, 49-46. They stopped the outside shot, holding North Carolina to 4-for-27 behind the arc.

They just couldn’t execute on their end. After beginning the second half with a three-point lead, they quickly allowed an 8-0 North Carolina burst. Gonzaga shot just 27.6 percent in the second half, going a stretch as long as 8:28 without a made basket.

“They were excellent tonight, defensively,” Few said of North Carolina. “They disrupted us. They climbed up into us, kind of drove our offense outside the normal area, as far as our wing touches and our entries. And we didn’t do a good job of properly executing that.”

The Tar Heels varied their pressures throughout the game, forcing Gonzaga mistakes. A typically-efficient offense floundered in the second half. The unit finished the game shooting 33.9 percent from the field with 14 turnovers.

Karnowski, who entered the game with the most experience of anyone on the floor and more collegiate wins than any other player in Division I history, struggled. The 7-foot-1 big man wouldn’t score his first points until there were 14 and a half minutes left, finishing with nine points and nine rebounds but shooting 1-for-8 from the floor.

“The main goal was to just wall him as much as we could, which was just vertical, straight up and down and hope that he missed a shot,” Meeks said. “We definitely did a great job trying to contain him. We had a gameplan, and we executed.”

Both sides slogged through a second half slogged down by foul calls and ensuing foul trouble on both sides. Meeks and North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks each were one foul away from fouling out, and the Zags lost freshman sixth man Zach Collins after he fouled out with 5:03 remaining.

“I don’t think Gonzaga is an easy team to officiate, and I don’t think North Carolina, with those bigs, is an easy team to officiate,” Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd said. “Generally that works in our favor, because generally they’re the ones in foul trouble and we’re kind of rolling through it. Today, it worked in their favor, but they dealt with it, too.”

Several late breaks can sway a game, but North Carolina just out-executed the Zags down the stretch. There’s the time Meeks dove for a loose offensive rebound with 53 seconds left and won a jump ball despite his hand appearing to be out of bounds.

“I thought I stepped out, and I guess I did,” Meeks said. “That’s cool. I don’t really care. We won. It’s good. I just tried to get the rebound, he tapped it out my hand, (we) dive for it, we got tied up and it was our ball.”

There’s also the skying runner from Hicks with 26 seconds left to push the lead to three. There’s Meeks’ block on Williams-Goss in the closing seconds.

“They had a ton to do with those breaks not going our way, but that is the breaks of the game,” Lloyd said. “It’s just how it goes. A lot of the time at the end of the game, though, it doesn’t come down to a break. It comes down to a team making a play, and they made a couple plays.”

Gonzaga is now 0-8 all-time in the NCAA Tournament when facing a one-seed. This time, the challenge wasn’t talent or athleticism. It was getting over their own mishaps, none larger than the one that happened in the game’s final minute.

It’s a handful of moments that define a close loss, and a handful of moments that extend a wait that, for Few, has taken 18 years as a head coach and another 10 as an assistant.

“What’s really tough right now is talking to Coach (Jim) Boeheim earlier in the week, he told me it will crush you if you don’t win it,” Few said. “And I guess I didn’t understand it, but the cagey old veteran is right. Man, it crushes you.”