Thousands cheer as UNC basketball team returns to Smith Center after winning national championship

by Will Rimer

Chapel Hill, NC – More than 10,000 fans cheered and celebrated as the North Carolina men’s basketball team returned home to the Dean E. Smith Center Tuesday evening, a day after beating Gonzaga 71-65 to win the National Championship.

Coach Roy Williams, who became just the sixth head basketball coach in the country with at least three national titles, told the crowd that each basketball season is a different journey and this season has been so satisfying for the players, staff and fans.

“We’ve had some good teams,” Williams said. “Now we have the best team.”

Williams, six players, Chancellor Carol L. Folt and athletics director Bubba Cunningham took turns praising the team and the fans, some of whom sported new 2017 national championship T-shirts at the welcome-home celebration.

“Coach, I know you never compare yourself to Coach Dean Smith,” Folt said. “I’m pretty sure he’s watching right now and is so proud of your legacy and history. Thank you.”

Folt also thanked the players and staff for being fantastic representatives of the University. She also praised Tar Heel nation — “the best fans ever,” she said.

Seniors Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks and juniors Joel Berry, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson also thanked the fans for tremendous and continued support, which they said helped motivate them to win the championship.

“We said we were going to bring it back, and y’all see that thing right there,” Pinson said, pointing to the championship trophy, leading to one of many raucous ovations from the crowd.

Tuesday’s celebration came exactly one year after the Tar Heels lost to Villanova in heartbreaking fashion on a last-second shot in the 2016 NCAA championship game.

“One year ago today was a very difficult time for us. There’s no doubt about it,” said Williams, who won his 76th NCAA Tournament game Monday out of the 100 he’s coached.

Last year’s disappointing ending was a big motivator for the team’s success this year.

“I asked them to use it as fuel, and they did that,” Williams said.

Players openly spoke about wanting redemption for last year’s loss, which they said put more pressure on themselves to succeed this season.

Each basketball season is a different journey with a different destination. From the outset, this team had chosen its destination — to be back in the NCAA title game and to have the confetti fall on them this time.

Last year, the team finished 33-7 and as runners-up in the NCAA Tournament. This year the team finished 33-7, but they are champions.

“We’re right where we want to be,” Williams said.