UCLA has that incredible run during the 1960s and 1970s. Kentucky has a couple more championships. Duke did win back to back titles. But no one has had tougher national championship games than North Carolina ... and it isn't even close.
The Tar Heels have won six NCAA tournaments -- 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009 and 2017. Each of those teams had a unique national championship game hurdle and usually it was an equally outstanding opponent. A couple of those times it wasn't just the opponent but where the game was played. And it all but the 2009 game, each one of those title tilts came down to the final seconds.
What that '57 team accomplished is just simply amazing. The Heels spent the national semifinals playing Michigan State into triple-overtime before finally beating the Spartans. The very next day the Heels would have to face Wilt Chamberlain and the Kansas Jayhawks in nearby Kansas City, Missouri. Carolina was the top ranked team in the nation; Kansas was ranked No. 2. As any true blue Carolina fan knows the Heels took Wilt and Co. to another triple overtime game before winning in the closing moments. In my biased mind, no team had ever faced a title challenge like this: two triple overtime games on consecutive days in the Final Four against a school who was playing a virtual home game and against one of the greatest players of all time. Chamberlain was picked before the 1959 NBA Draft as a territorial pick by the Philadelphia Warriors.
The 1982 Tar Heels are iconic in school lore. Their opponent in New Orleans for the title game had their legend grow over the years as well. The Georgetown Hoyas were led by freshman Patrick Ewing and immediately had high hopes to bring championships back to the nation's capital. The Hoyas season was up and down but they were playing their absolute best heading into the championship game. Again, we all know the story: Ewing goaltends early on, the game goes back and forth and a kid named Michael Jordan hits the game winning jumper. Ewing and the Hoyas would go to two more national championship games during this four year stretch in one of the most impressive runs for a program since the UCLA dynasty. In this tournament, the Hoyas were a No. 1 seed in the West Region and had won 16 of their last 17 heading into the game. Ewing would go on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 1985 NBA Draft.
Many people forget that the 1990 incoming recruiting class for North Carolina was one of the best in the nation, featuring Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Kevin Salvadori and Brian Reese. While Tar Heel fans love those guys, they don't look as good on paper as Michigan's freshman class the following year. We know them as the Fab Five of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson and Juwan Howard. The two met in the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii earlier in the season when a Rose shot won the game in the closing seconds. Michigan lost the national championship game in 1992 to Duke and came into this game as a No. 1 seed. While the 1957 and 1982 title games were tight throughout, the 1993 game had wild swings where each team went on dominant runs to take control of the game. It came down the final moments when Webber (who wasn't called for a traveling violation) would call a timeout that Michigan didn't have which cost the Wolverines -- who were down by two at the time -- a shot at winning the game. This was the final game the Fab Five ever played together (Webber would be the No. 1 overall pick that summer which makes it three title wins the Heels have beaten a team who had a top overall draft pick).
This Heels team was built on a great 2002 recruiting class but had no real success to speak of heading into their title tilt with Illinois. Just three years removed from a dreadful 8-20 season, the Heels had won only two NCAA tournament games over the previous four years before making the run to the championship game. There they faced Illinois, who had lost only one game all season -- a one-point loss to Ohio State in Columbus in the regular season finale. UNC had a comfortable lead for much of the game before a 10-0 run by Illinois late tied the game (the Illini made an sensational comeback against Arizona in the regional final which left Heels fans uneasy in this one). The game would be knotted up at 70 before Carolina took the lead on a Marvin Williams putback and the Illini couldn't cash in on some open looks. The championship game was Illinois' second loss on the season.
This game was never in doubt. North Carolina dominated this game as they dominated every game in this tournament with lightning quick spurts and enough talent to overwhelm any opponent. Michigan State was a No. 2 seed in this one but the game was being played at Ford Field in Detroit. It didn't matter as the Heels jumped all over the Spartans, setting first half scoring records and sailing to an easy win. What makes this difficult is the opponent's proximity to the host site ... though when the two met earlier in the season (at Ford Field, no less) the Heels stomped them then as well.
Like in 2005, the Heels would play a school that had lost only one game all season long. Gonzaga began the season before losing to BYU in the regular season finale. The Zags blew through the WCC tournament and would end up in the program's first Final Four in the NCAA tournament's first championship game out west in over 20 years. This particular Carolina team was out for "Redemption" after losing the title game to Villanova on a three pointer at the buzzer. It was an ugly game which was to be expected from two teams that loved to bang around in the paint and were rabid rebounders. Similar to all the other UNC championship wins (save 2009) this was a back and forth affair with Gonzaga leading with under two minutes left. But big buckets by Justin Jackson and Isiah Hicks along with a monster blocked shot by Kennedy Meeks sealed the win and finally gave Carolina the redemption they craved.
Six championship games where UNC ended with the trophy. All were against highly touted teams and five were against a No. 1 seed (in Kansas' case an equivalent of a No. 1 seed). They faced off against the eventual No. 1 overall draft pick three times (Chamberlain, Ewing, Webber) while playing three of the games in a relative geographical disadvantage (Kansas in Kansas City, Illinois in St. Louis, Michigan State in Detroit). They beat two centers who were revolutionizing college basketball, the most celebrated recruiting class ever and two teams that lost just one game all season long.
So when you look back at North Carolina's championship past ... which admittedly has two of the most notorious errors in sports history ... you can be proud that they beat the best to be the best.