Right from the tip, you knew this was a game had that special sort of Smith Center magic that would linger in the minds of Tar Heel fans.
Sure, the pure adrenaline of facing a Top 5 opponent made that possibility likely, but the crowd turned the game memorable. Every “ooh” after Coby White split a double team. Every guttural cheer when one of UNC’s 13 three-pointers fell. And even every boo when a touch foul was called against the Heels.
All of them combining to further engrain the 103-90 win into the memories of those in attendance, like nearly every big game in the Smith Center does.
But, hopefully, those feelings that are felt when Cameron Johnson’s 30-foot shot clock cheese dropped, or when Leaky Black slammed home the break away dunk, are just as fresh as the swell in the crowd every time UNC pulled down a rebound on defense and started their secondary break.
Because UNC wouldn’t have dominated like they did without cleaning up on the glass.
“Rebounding the ball I thought was big,” coach Roy Williams said. “I thought we worked the offensive glass and got baskets to put us in. I mean, that's an amazing stat: 27 points off offensive rebounds.”
He’s right. UNC snagged 14 offensive rebounds against Gonzaga, just two fewer rebounds than Gonzaga had on the defensive boards, putting up 27 second chance points, including 16 in the second half to ice the game after jumping out to a 14-point lead at halftime.
“We knew coming in that they were long, they were big,” senior Luke Maye said of Gonzaga’s lineup. “I thought we did a great job of trying to play our game, play to what we feel like our strengths.”
As impressive as UNC was on the offensive glass, defensively was where the biggest impact was made. The Tar Heels rebounded 84.8 percent of Gonzaga’s misses, holding the Bulldogs to just five offensive rebounds and zero second chance points. They doubled up Gonzaga overall, out rebounding them 42-21, led by Luke Maye’s 16 boards and Garrison Brooks’ 9.
“We play eleven guys,” sophomore Sterling Manley said. “If you're going to play eight guys against us (like Gonzaga), and you think you're going to be able stay on the boards and get around us, it's not going to work out, especially when we're on our game, and we're shooting like we were.”
Great rebounding has always been a hallmark of Roy Williams’ best teams. At its peak, the rebounding is lethal mixture of size, technique, effort, and strategy.
UNC likes to run with two bigs because of the advantage that brings on the glass. The Tar Heels send four men to basket on offense when the shot goes up, sending just one player back on defense rather than the three or four most of their peers do. And in practice, the team works meticulously on boxing out their opponent.
“The biggest thing is every time the shot goes up, we think they're going to miss,” Manley said. “Coach emphasizes that people can't make every shot. So every time it goes up, they're always constantly saying ‘go to the boards, go to the boards, go to the boards.’”
Pre-game, North Carolina knew they had a potential advantage to exploit on the glass. The Tar Heels averaged nearly five rebounds per game more than the Bulldogs, while averaging a rebounding margin nearly twice as a large as Gonzaga’s average advantage. Garrison Brooks said Coach Steve Robinson made rebounding a point of emphasis every chance he could when pointing out keys to the game.
But still, Gonzaga’s front line of Rui Hachimura (6-foot-8), Brandon Clarke (6-foot-8), and Filip Petrusev (6-foot-11), could compete with the Tar Heels’ size. So it came down to the fundamentals.
“I just try to get in the right spots, really try to box both (Hachimura) and Clarke out,” Maye, who finished with 16 rebounds, said. “And there at the end, the ball bounced the right way.”
The result left Gonzaga coach Mark Few without any answers to how to stop UNC’s greatest strength.
“We tried as best we could with limited practices and limited bodies, tried to mimic how hard they go to the glass,” Few said. “The shots we did get them to miss, they usually got rebounded and put it back in.”
So yes, remember the passes to the wing for a Kenny Williams three. Remember Garrison Brooks’ nasty block in the post. Remember Seventh Woods’ bank shot to close out the first half.
But don’t forget the sight of a Nassir Little tapout, or Luke Maye Corralling a Bulldog shot off the rim, and the rush of excitement that meant when it gave the Tar Heels another shot to make magic happen in the Smith Center.