Can March Madness exist in April? Regardless of answer, the madness carries over to the early days of April; four teams and three games inside a state-of-the-art facility to decide a national champion.
The North Carolina Tar Heels got redemption in 2017 after losing to Villanova at the buzzer in 2016. Gonzaga was looking for its initial title; North Carolina won its sixth (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, 2017).
South Carolina and Oregon were fun to watch throughout the NCAA Tournament; South Carolina probably had one of the most improbable, impeccable runs to the Final Four as a seven-seed.
Here are Strings & Laces’ notes from the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament:
Saturday, April 1:
South Carolina loses to Gonzaga by four points. The Gamecocks came back from 14 points down — the team played from behind four times in the tournament — to lead by one point. Sindarius Thornwell, who became a scorching star in March, went to the foul line in the final seconds, and chose to miss his second free-throw to give South Carolina a chance on the rebound. Gonzaga got the rebound. It’s a tough decision: Thornwell could have made the second free-throw, then South Carolina could have fouled and been down two points even if Gonzaga made both free-throws. With two hammering defenses, this game was higher scoring (77-to-73) than expected, although, maybe that’s the reason why both offenses opened up so much. South Carolina was the dark horse all tournament long; Gonzaga was out to prove something, silence the haters who always get on the team for playing in a moderate conference.
Key factors of North Carolina’s victory over Oregon: Kennedy Meeks rummaging the floor, eating the game up (25 points, 14 rebounds); Justin Jackson’s precision shooting touch; Oregon missing 19-of-26 three-point shots; Dillon Brooks fouling out for Oregon, only scoring 10 points (Brooks and Tyler Dorsey shot 5-of-22 from the field). If it wasn’t for Jordan Bell (13 points, 16 rebounds, four blocks) and Dylan Ennis’ fearlessness (18 points), Oregon would have lost by a lot more. Practically, the Ducks were down seven points for the majority of time; the ball was not bouncing Oregon’s way. But Oregon was the cat that never stops scratching. The air escaped University of Phoenix Stadium with 42 seconds remaining in regulation as Dorsey’s three-point shot softly bounced off the front rim, preceding to get a ridiculous roll, and falling through the net to get Oregon within three points (77-to-74); Dorsey had just missed a three on the same possession, but Oregon fought for a miraculous offensive rebound. Oregon got a defensive stop and a score after a frantic moment — Bell hit the deck, somehow didn’t travel, and the ball was passed in transition for a lay up. This set up one of the most infuriating game-ending sequences in Final Four history: Meeks goes to the foul line and misses both free-throws, but Theo Pinson gets his hand on the rebound, punching the ball away; North Carolina retains possession. Joel Berry goes to the foul line and misses both free-throws, but Meeks grabs the rebound and Oregon stares into misery. North Carolina is the best rebounding team in basketball; Oregon forgot how to box the fuck out.
Monday, April 3:
We understand that the NCAA basketball championship game is an astronomical event — 76,000 people watching in the seats, millions of others at home — and a bunch of sponsors are involved, but could we have the tip-off an hour earlier? I was fighting sleep in the second half (millions of others would agree).
Looking for an offensive foray between North Carolina and Gonzaga? Didn’t happen. The two teams combined for a shooting average of 35-percent, and there was 44 fouls called, but sometimes a messy situation is entertaining. North Carolina and Gonzaga played a game of scoring droughts and scoring spurts. The scores reflect such: 21-to-14, Gonzaga; 28-to-23, Gonzaga; 35-to-32, Gonzaga; 40-to-35, North Carolina; 41-to-40, Gonzaga; 44-to-43, North Carolina; and so on and so forth. Telling moment with 1:25 left in regulation, North Carolina ahead by one point: Gonzaga’s hero, Nigel Williams-Goss, rolls an ankle, the same ankle he rolled during Saturday’s game. The ankle tweak happened while Williams-Goss scored at will for Gonzaga; too much pressure. Williams-Goss could have been used as a decoy in the final, stressful moments, but he goes for the basket, gets blocked by Meeks, and Jackson throws down the emphatic championship flush. Everybody loses sleep as witnesses of history.