The distance from Columbia, South Carolina to Dallas, Texas is 1,000 miles. The distance from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Phoenix, Arizona is 2,150 miles. On Sunday, April 2rd and Monday, April 3rd the Carolinas showed why they are the queens and kings of basketball.
The South Carolina Gamecocks, led by head coach Dawn Staley were making their first trip to the national championship game. They had been to the final four two years ago before losing to Notre Dame. The Mississippi State Bulldogs was also making their first trip to the championship game. The two teams faced each other twice during the season with the Gamecocks winning both meetings. During the regular season, they won 64-61 at home and then 59-49 in the SEC Tournament championship game. The Bulldogs had the momentum coming into this national championship game after their overtime buzzer-beating win over the Connecticut Huskies. That win snapped the dominant Huskies’ 111 game winning streak. After the first few minutes of the game, and a 7-1 lead, the Bulldogs look like they were going to cut down the nets. That’s when the Gamecocks decided to attack the paint and attack often. They never made a three-pointer in the game, but just imposed their will. The Bulldogs were playing their third straight number one seed, and just didn’t have enough to mount a comeback. The Gamecocks pulled away late to a 67-55 victory. Staley said, “From an offensive standpoint, we needed to attack the paint. Yes, Mississippi State is a very good defensive team. They’re also a team that fouls a lot. We wanted to make sure that we put ‘em back on their heels.” Staley is just the second African-American coach to win the women’s basketball title. Carolyn Peck was the first, who led Purdue to the 1999 national championship. Staley thanked Peck for paving the way. She said, “A few years ago, she gave me a piece of her national championship net. She told me to keep it. I’ve had it in my wallet for years. She said, ‘When you win your national championship, just return it.’ I’m going to have to pass a piece of my net on to somebody else so they can share and hopefully accomplish something as big as this.” Staley never won a title when she played for Virginia despite attending three Final Fours from 1990-1992. The closest she got was in 1991 when she was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player — the only person who’s won that honor from a losing team in the history of the NCAA tournament. Only Kim Mulkey has won an NCAA women’s basketball title as both a player (Louisiana Tech) and a coach (Baylor). A’ja Wilson was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, thanks in large part to her 23 points and 10 rebounds. She said, “Man, just be with us next year, we’re trying to be in this same spot next year, we’re going to see how it goes.”
The North Carolina Tarheels, led by head coach Roy Williams was on a redemption tour. Last year the Tarheels watched as the confetti rained down on them but it was not in jubilation. The Villanova Wildcats hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win. That left a bad taste in the Tarheels mouth, one that lingered from fall practice until the championship game verse the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Although many saw this as a David verse Goliath match-up, it was really a Goliath verse Goliath. The Bulldogs had only lost one game the entire season and were a number one seed themselves. They won their conference championship, and came into the championship game as the most complete team on both sides of the ball. The Tarheels didn’t win their conference and came into the championship game off of two heart-pounding last minute wins. This championship game was a nip-and-tuck game for all 39 minutes and 30 seconds. The Tarheels’ Senior Isaiah Hicks, made a tough off balance jump shot off the glass while driving to the basket. This gave them a three-point lead. After that play, they got a huge block from Kennedy Meeks with 20 seconds left in the game that led to a Justin Jackson dunk. That put the Tarheels up five. Then Meeks came up with a huge steal on the next possession. Joel Berry II was fouled and hit one of two free throws to close out the game 71-65. Berry finished the game with 22 points and six assists and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. He said, “I wanted to see the confetti.” The Tarheels returned 10 players from last year’s team, including their five starters. It is no doubt that this was all about redemption. This was the school’s sixth national title and Williams’ third. Williams now has one more title than his idol Dean Smith. He is now sixth all time in championships, joining the likes of John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (5), Adolph Rupp (4), Jim Calhoun (3), and Bobby Knight (3). Williams said, “They try to say it’s more than Dean Smith. I’m not Dean Smith, never have been, never will be. He was so much better. But I have teams that have taken me and presented the greatest gift a coach can have; to see the looks on your guy’s faces when they’ve accomplished it. At the end, when you’re watching your kids jump around, there’s no better feeling in the world as a coach.”
It wasn’t a good night for teams that were Bulldogs. It did take a long trip heading west from the southeast. It also took one shining moment and to be from the Carolinas.