6 Fascinating Things About UNC’s Title Run

In honor of North Carolina’s sixth men’s basketball national championship, here’s a “Top Six List” of interesting details from the Tar Heels’ memorable 2016–2017 season.

UNC vs. Miami in the 2017 ACC Tournament

1. A Stat So Crazy It Doesn’t Seem Real

In 2005, 2009 and 2017—North Carolina’s three NCAA Championship seasons under Roy Williams—the following things happened all three years:

A. North Carolina was the champion of the early-season Maui Invitational Tournament. (Since 2000, these were the only three years in which UNC won Maui.)

B. UNC won the regular-season ACC Conference title.

C. UNC lost in the semifinal round of the ACC Conference Tournament—and Duke won the ACC Tournament.

D. North Carolina won the NCAA National Championship. (And Duke failed to advance past the Sweet Sixteen.)

Again, each of these things happened in 2005, 2009 and 2017. A meme citing this data circulated after Duke knocked off UNC in the ACC Tournament this year and then went on to win said tournament. The thinking was that maybe the stars were aligned for another Tar Heel title. Turns out, they were.

F. Additional note, courtesy of my friend “Hurricane Howie” Myones: In each of the three years, UNC was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And in each of those three years, exactly two of the four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four.

G. Additional note of my own: Each of the three years, the Tar Heels beat at least one of these teams in the NCAA Tournament: Gonzaga (2009, 2017), Villanova (2005, 2009) and Michigan State (2005, 2009). In 2009, they beat all three teams en route to the title.

2. Roy Called a Time-out … And Saved UNC’s Season

Among Carolina fans, Roy Williams is famous—and many would say infamous—for steadfastly refusing to call time-outs during critical late-game situations. It has become almost comical at this point, with Carolina fans screaming at the TV, “Call time-out, Roy!” while knowing full well that he won’t do it. It’s simply not part of Williams’ strategy; he believes his players should be able to handle on-court situations and don’t need time-outs to change the in-game momentum.

For that reason, what happened late in the Elite Eight game against Kentucky was remarkable. North Carolina had been leading most of the game and was up by six, 53–47, with 10:39 to go. Over the next five-and-a-half minutes, however, Kentucky went on a 17–6 run. Isaac Humphries’ two-point field goal put Kentucky up, 64–59, with 5:11 remaining.

Carolina fans had seen this movie a million times before: Although the Wildcats had all the momentum (and their largest lead of the game), Roy Williams would not call a time-out. He would have his players fight through it, for better for worse. Only … that’s not what happened.

Williams called a time-out with 5:03 on the clock. In UNC’s ensuing possession, Theo Pinson hit what may have been his biggest shot of the tournament, a contested runner near the rim. Kentucky failed to score over the next four minutes and 15 seconds of game time, and UNC took a 71–64 lead with 48 seconds left.

From the moment when Williams called his time-out, North Carolina went on a 12–0 run to turn a five-point deficit into a seven-point advantage. They needed each and every point, too, as Kentucky rallied to tie it with eight seconds remaining.

Then this happened:

Without Williams’ uncharacteristic time-out, Luke Maye probably never gets to hit the shot of his life. And the Tar Heels probably never win the 2017 championship.

3. The Most Amazing In-bounds Save You’ll Ever See

Early in the championship game, Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss shot an airball. Two players fought for it, and Carolina’s Joel Berry tipped it into the air, headed out of bounds. Except … Isaiah Hicks leaped across the line, cupped the ball and tossed it straight upward before (arguably) his foot hit the ground. Kennedy Meeks then jumped across the line as well, grabbed the ball and flipped it to Theo Pinson, in-bounds. Four Tar Heel players touched the ball to save it. I’ve never seen anything like it.

4. The Meeks Shall Inherit the Earth

Throughout his time at UNC, Kennedy Meeks has been viewed, by and large, as an underachiever. Last year, in Meeks’ junior season, his numbers dipped across the board. This year he took a step forward, but he saved his best games—arguably the best of his career—for the NCAA Tournament.

In six March Madness games, Meeks averaged 12.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.2 blocks per game—in only 26 minutes per game. In a tournament in which UNC as a team shot abysmally from the field (more on that below), Meeks’ field goal percentage for the tournament was 64.3 percent.

Beyond the numbers, Meeks came up with huge play after huge play when the Tar Heels most needed them. A tip-in with 44 seconds left to hold off Arkansas and a 17-rebound, four-block performance against Kentucky set the stage for his ‘one shining moment’—a 25-point (on 11-of-13 shooting), 14-rebound, three-steal, one-block opus against Oregon which included an offensive rebound off a foul shot to seal the victory and send UNC to the finals. In the championship game against Gonzaga, Meeks blocked Nigel Williams-Goss with 15 seconds left and UNC up by three. That block led to a Justin Jackson dunk, and when Meeks—guess who—stole the ball on Gonzaga’s next possession, the title was Carolina’s. Joel Berry II may have won MVP honors, but Kennedy Meeks’ elevated play won Carolina the tournament.

Update: Found this article (below) on Meeks. It draws similar conclusions about his tournament play and gives great backstory on his development.

5. UNC Won with Defense, Not Offense

This season, UNC was one of the best offensive teams in the country. The Tar Heels were not, by any means, known for their defense. But in the NCAA Tournament, the Heels’ D (and offensive rebounding) carried them when their shots weren’t falling—and their shots were not falling.

For the tournament, UNC shot 43.4 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from the three-point line, as well as 68.1 percent from the foul line. Those numbers are, to put it lightly, not good. Take away the Heels’ good shooting performances against Texas Southern and Butler, and they had only one other game where they shot above 40 percent. Against Kentucky, UNC went three-of-15 from beyond the arc; against Gonzaga, they were four-of-27 from three. And their foul shooting wasn’t just bad—it was timely bad. The Heels missed countless late-game free throws; Kentucky, Oregon and Gonzaga were all able to hang around because of it.

But North Carolina prevailed on defense. As poorly as the Tar Heels shot during the tournament, here are the field goal percentages to which they held their opponents:

Texas Southern: 36.7 percent

Arkansas: 43.3 percent

Butler: 43.5 percent

Kentucky: 41.5 percent

Oregon: 37.9 percent

Gonzaga: 33.9 percent

Did the Tar Heels have some luck in their opponents not hitting a higher percentage of their shots? Certainly. But opponents had the same luck with UNC’s shots not dropping. And when not a single team shoots over 44 percent against you for the tournament, chances are it’s your defense, not luck, that’s responsible.

6. Ole’ Roy is Pretty Dadgum Good at Coaching

For a coach who had already won two national titles, Roy Williams sure faced a lot of criticism the past few seasons. Beyond failing to call time-outs and losing more often than not to Duke, Williams routinely fielded questions about the NCAA’s ongoing (and ongoing … and ongoing …) investigation over UNC’s academic scandal.

When the Tar Heels reached this year’s Final Four, however, USA Today ran this story:

They’re right: Roy Williams is the best NCAA Tournament coach of this era. Since 2000, he has now won three championships, reached seven Final Fours, 10 Elite Eights and 12 Sweet 16s—not to mention his eight ACC Conference titles between 2005 and 2017.

7. Good Luck Bonus Fact: The Ceiling WAS The Roof

MJ was right, after all.