The end of March brings with it a barrage of rain showers, pollen and finals. It also brings an end to the Madness. However, April began with some excitement of its own, with the women’s title game April 1 and the men’s title game April 2. On the women’s side, two Southeastern Conference teams clashed for the crown as the University of South Carolina defeated Mississippi State University 67-55 in Dallas. Perennial powerhouse, the University of North Carolina, held off a tough University of Gonzaga (Wash.) team 71-65 in Phoenix to claim the men’s championship.
For years, women’s basketball has revolved solely around the greatness of the University of Connecticut (UConn) program, a reality that was no different this year. The Huskies, four-time defending national champions, entered the Final Four on a 111-game win streak (no, that is not an error, the Huskies won 111 consecutive games), making them the overwhelming favorite to claim their fifth-straight title.
Meeting UConn in the Final Four was Mississippi State, a team that fell to the Huskies by 60 points in the Sweet 16 of last year’s tournament, where no team had ever lost by such a margin. Mississippi State has fed off that loss ever since, reportedly posting the number 60 in the team’s weight room during the offseason.
While it is unheard of for a semifinal contest to overshadow the tournament final, Mississippi State’s stunning 66-64 overtime dethroning of the Monstars of women’s college basketball will likely be what people remember most from the 2017 NCAA tournament.
In the title game, Mississippi State was unable to seal the deal, falling to a South Carolina team led by forward A’ja Wilson (23 points, 10 rebounds) and Head Coach Dawn Staley, who became the second African-American coach to lead a team to a women’s NCAA tournament championship.
The men’s side saw a matchup of blue-bloods and newbies, as the North Carolina Tar Heels met the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Falling in dramatic fashion during last year’s title game to Villanova University (Pa.) after Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating three pointer, North Carolina worked their way back with hopes of a different outcome this year. With guard Marcus Paige no longer on the roster, questions lingered as to who would lead the Tar Heels in his absence. There to answer were forward Kennedy Meeks and guard Joel Berry II, who more than filled the gaps left by Paige.
On the other side, history shined dimly on Gonzaga’s title hopes. A team from the west coast has not won the tournament since the University of Arizona in 1997, while a team from Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference has not won it all since the University of San Francisco triumphed with back-to-back titles in 1955 and 1956.
But Gonzaga is no scrub. One of the tournament’s most consistent representatives, Gonzaga has developed into one of college basketball’s most reliable programs. Add to that the brute power of center Przemek Karnowski and the sheer will to win of guard Nigel Williams-Goss, and Gonzaga is clearly a formidable force.
The Bulldogs showed no fear in the game’s early stages, holding the lead through much of the first half. The second half saw each team tighten up and struggle to connect on shots from the field (Gonzaga 34 percent, North Carolina 36 percent). Ultimately, turnovers did in the Bulldogs, who handed the ball over to North Carolina 14 times throughout the game and in so doing handing the game over to the Tar Heels. Berry II, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, kept North Carolina in control down the stretch with 22 points and six assists, helping the Tar Heels secure a 71-65 victory.
North Carolina won their sixth title in school history, while South Carolina claimed its first. Granted, there were no 12 seeds in either Final Four this year, yet each tournament culminated in historic fashion. With an upset for the ages on one side and the validation of a Gonzaga program that was finally able to make it into the Final Four on the other, this tournament offered more than enough shining moments, even if you don’t hail from the Carolinas.