The Post-Halftime Show
The North Carolina Tar Heels faced the Gonzaga Bulldogs in Phoenix, Arizona tonight, winning the neck-in-neck competition 71–65 in an surprising turn of events.
The Zags stepped on the NCAA championship court for the first time ever, and it’s clear that they needed more than beginner’s luck to catch the tails of the Heels. With three giants over seven feet, and an impressive front court on their side, the Bulldogs seemed the favorable victor to most.
And they played well.
Unexpectedly though, the Heels played better when it mattered: when the game transitioned into an actual competition with five-minutes to go.
Unlike the final five, the first 35 minutes of the game were relatively consistent: a back-and-forth shooting contest between both teams. The scores were locked up for much of the game, and their playing tendencies matched up pretty evenly this past season.
Because both teams were tied up in nearly every aspect, they started to force each other to play in ways out of their comfort zones. Exterior shooting and defense became the anthems of the second half, and during the last couple of minutes, the balance beam really started to tip. What didn’t used to matter as much to these offensive powerhouses — defense — started to become a deciding factor.
Like the “adage” says, defense wins games. And unfortunately for the Bulldogs, turnovers do not.
The Zags got extremely caught up in turnovers in the second half, ending up with 14 by the end of the game as opposed to the Heels’ 4. And 7–1’ center Przemeck Karnowski was the poster child for these slip-ups (as well as many other mistakes), putting up four on his own.
The Zags were not just unfamiliar with the three-pointers they had to take or the defense they had to play, rather a whole new Karnowski who could hardly score, receive a pass or stay on his man in the backcourt. The Polish giant is typically the second or third highest scorer on the team, averaging a solid 12.3 points per game from field goals (not just free throws), so for him to not perform at his highest level in the championship is letting down his team. Karnowski is obviously not solely to blame in Gonzaga’s loss, but with his lack of offensive drive and his constant mess-ups, he ended up holding back the Bulldogs like the big boulder he is.
The bottom line is the Tar Heels turned up the heat at the end of the game, and Gonzaga was just too burned out to take the pressure. The end of the game was the hardest part for any Zags fan to watch as they were messy and inaccurate at a time they should have been clean, smooth and strong.
Perhaps the Heels just had a greater motivation to succeed. Not everyone gets two shots at the national championships. Point guard Joel Berry came out with 22 points tonight and forward Kennedy Meeks picked up 10 rebounds, allowing the Heels to rise above and pass up the Bulldogs.
Not only was North Carolina able to maintain a tight defense toward the end, but it was also able to play to its strengths — taking full advantage of the maneuverability of its smaller guards against the Zags’ larger stars. In contrast, the big Bulldogs failed to take advantage of their size, and were too slow to keep up with the fast-paced, movement-oriented Heels.
North Carolina still had a number of mistakes throughout the game — they were not perfect by any means. And this makes the loss for Gonzaga all the more disappointing. With the undeniable talent and advantages they have with players like Nigel Williams Goss or Karnowski, the Heels should not have been able to fly by them in the last couple minutes.
Gonzaga put up a good effort, but the Heels were just the better team when it came down to the clutch moments of the game. Maybe the Zags will get their very own chance for redemption next season, but for now, they’re stuck in the dreaded position of second place.