North Carolina isn’t the only team on a mission to win the NCAA championship.
Much of the focus on Monday night’s national title game has been on the fact that the Tar Heels have been driven all season to avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the championship. But Gonzaga has been on a mission of its own the last 19 years to reach the Final Four and win the the school’s first national title.
The Bulldogs first burst onto the national stage in 1999, advancing to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed to start a run of 19 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. They then reached the Sweet 16 as double-digit seeds in coach Mark Few’s first two seasons at the school and returned to the Elite Eight in 2015 as a No. 2 seed.
The Zags finally broke through to the Final Four this year but the squad from the small college in Spokane, Washington, likely won’t earn everyone’s respect until it wins it all.
Despite owning a No. 1 seed and the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense and having only one loss (37-1), Gonzaga is a 1½-point underdog to top-seeded North Carolina in the NCAA Championship Game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
“Although they’re both No. 1 seeds, there’s still a little bit of David versus Goliath,” Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito said. “You have one of the most historic programs in college basketball in North Carolina against a much smaller school.”
Indeed, Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference is trying to become the first national champion since UNLV in 1990 that didn’t hail from a major conference.
Esposito expects the Bulldogs to beat the Tar Heels and so do we. Gonzaga’s twin towers of 7-foot-1-inch Przemek Karnowski and 7-foot Zach Collins should nullify North Carolina’s much-ballyhooed big men: 6-10 Kennedy Meeks, 6-8 Justin Jackson and 6-9 Isaiah Hicks.
Collins, a Bishop Gorman product, resembled a young Kevin McHale in the Zags’ 77-73 win Saturday over South Carolina, compiling 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks.
“Gonzaga is one of the few schools that can match some of the bigs North Carolina has, especially if Collins plays the way he did,” Esposito said. “Gonzaga has shot better on the outside than North Carolina, has a defense ranked No. 1, goes nine deep and plays the inside-out game.
“For Carolina to win, it needs to shoot lights out from outside. If they don’t, I think Gonzaga cuts down the nets and finishes 38-1.”
The Bulldogs are second in the nation in shooting percentage (50.8) and made 9 of 19 3-pointers against a South Carolina squad that prides itself on defending the 3-point line. Gonzaga also has a big edge at point guard, where Nigel Williams-Goss is locked in and North Carolina’s Joel Berry II is struggling on two balky ankles.
The Tar Heels opened as 2-point favorites Saturday but the line was quickly bet down to 1½, where it has remained. The total was at 154½ at most books Sunday, with the South Point at 153½.
Neither team covered in the national semifinals. North Carolina, a 4½-point favorite, edged Oregon 77-76. One bettor at South Point still cashed a big money-line ticket on the Tar Heels, wagering $525,000 to win $250,000.
The Ducks trailed 77-71 with less than a minute left before cutting the deficit to 77-76 with 5.2 seconds remaining. But Oregon never touched the ball again.
After Meeks missed two free throws, North Carolina rebounded and Berry was fouled. After he missed a pair, Meeks grabbed the board and the Tar Heels ran out the clock. Many late over bettors suffered a bad beat as they needed only one more point to push the number over the closing total of 153½.
Gonzaga, a 6½-point favorite, led by 14 before the Gamecocks went on a 16-0 run to take a 67-65 lead. Collins answered with a 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs the lead for good but South Carolina covered to finish the tournament 5-0 against the spread.
Gonzaga leads the nation with a 23-10-2 record ATS.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.