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UNC Played Ugly Enough To Win

It wasn’t pretty basketball, by any stretch. UNC and Gonzaga combined for a putrid 34.8 percent field goal percentage, 20 missed free throws and 44 total fouls in Monday’s men’s NCAA Tournament final. Legitimate comparisons were being made to the infamously bad 2011 title game in terms of unwatchability. But none of that mattered to North Carolina when the confetti rained down upon its sixth national championship after a 71-65 victory.

Much was made of the size matchup between the twin gargantuan frontcourts of the Tar Heels and Bulldogs, and neither team shied away from banging away on the interior despite the game grinding to an ugly, defensive stalemate for long stretches of the clock. But UNC’s bigs — particularly Isaiah Hicks, who followed a rough performance in the national semifinal with 13 points vs. the Zags — badly outplayed Gonzaga’s, powering a 40-18 scoring edge in the paint and an 18-percentage-point edge on 2-pointers.

Overall, both teams were equally (in)efficient shooting the ball; the winning Tar Heels actually put up an inferior effective field goal (eFG) percentage (38.4 percent) compared to the Bulldogs’ (40.7). But UNC also gave itself more chances to score on the margins, grabbing three more offensive rebounds and winning the turnover battle in a landslide, 14-4. In combination with one of North Carolina’s best defensive games of the season at the other end — and Gonzaga’s absolute worst offensive showing all year — the Tar Heels offense eked out just enough points to win.

It helped that Carolina also won the battle of the star players. UNC’s top two scorers during the season (Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson) combined for 38 points on a 39.5 percent eFG% Monday night, while Gonzaga’s top pair (Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski) tallied only 24 points on a horrid 26 percent eFG%. And any help those two could have received from the likes of Zach Collins or Johnathan Williams was disrupted by the foul trouble each found himself in throughout the second half.

Speaking of which, the game was marred by sloppy play and plenty of fouls — more of the latter, in fact, than any of the previous six title games1 (including the whistle-heavy 2013 final between Louisville and Michigan). Fans on both sides spent most of the second half griping about the officials’ aggressive whistles.

But winning ugly is still, well, winning. On Monday night, North Carolina did what it had to do to beat Gonzaga — just like it did all tournament long, against a difficult slate of opponents that included teams who eventually ranked Nos. 35 (Arkansas), 25 (Butler), 10 (Oregon), 4 (Kentucky) and 1 (Gonzaga) according to the ratings of college stats guru Ken Pomeroy. That’s an impressive stretch of victories, one befitting a team that was hell-bent on avenging last season’s buzzer-beating defeat on the championship stage.

So who cares if the final game wasn’t pretty? North Carolina is your very deserving 2017 NCAA men’s basketball champion.

Footnotes

  1. The 2011 NCAA Tournament is as far back as Sports-Reference.com’s game finder tool goes.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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