Nigel Williams-Goss (No. 5) of the Gonzaga Bulldogs shoots against Isaiah Hicks (No. 4) of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second half of last nights 2017 NCAA Mens Final Four National Championship game.
Nigel Williams-Goss (No. 5) of the Gonzaga Bulldogs shoots against Isaiah Hicks (No. 4) of the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second half of last night's 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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This year’s Final Four, played at University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale, Arizona, featured two Northwest schools against the Carolinas, North and South, in the semi-finals. The University of Oregon, which reached the very first Final Four held in 1939 (when the field was eight teams, as opposed to the current 68), fell to traditional college basketball powerhouse North Carolina. Gonzaga, the perennial big fish in a little pond that for nearly 20 years came up short in the big tournament, broke through at last by not only reaching the Final Four, but getting to the championship game by defeating South Carolina on Saturday.

For many University of Washington alums and fans like myself, the presence of Gonzaga in the championship caused some ambivalence. On the one hand, I am a Northwest Coast guy who generally thinks it’s a good look for the region when its teams do well. On the other hand, the Bulldogs are the Huskies’ rivals to such an extent that over the years, several high profile UW players have transferred to Gonzaga.

In addition, Gonzaga was said to have reported UW assistant coach Cameron Dollar to the NCAA in the early 2000s for an alleged recruiting violation, which unofficially led to a long suspension of the annual regular season game the two schools played. Combine this with stories of Gonzaga coach Mark Few referring to rival and former UW head coach as Lorenzo “Roll Out the Ball” Romar—a shot at Romar’s coaching ability—and you see how deep and bitter this conflict is.

This year’s championship game was not pretty to watch, particularly coming off the drama of last year’s final, which featured a buzzer beating 3-pointer at the end by Villanova to beat North Carolina. In the first 12 minutes of the second half of last night's game, referees called more than 20 fouls, which killed the game's rhythm and flow. Gonzaga was led all year by junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, playing his first season for the Zags as a transfer after spending his first two years at UW. A prerequisite for any NCAA champion is great guard play, and Williams-Goss played well enough.

In my view, Gonzaga’s 71-65 loss to the Tar Heels was rooted most in the performance of Bulldog center Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski, a 7'1, 300-pound mountain of a man who has bullied his way to the basket throughout the season—averaging over 12 points per game—shot one for eight, and was matched in size and surpassed in athleticism by the bigs from Carolina.

Gonzaga forward Zach Collins, who’s going to be a star, was exposed as the freshman he is. Although Williams-Goss sprained an ankle late in the game, which appeared to affect his lift on a couple of crucial missed shots, the Zags still put up a fight. That was, until the Tar Heels used a 9-2 run over the last two minutes to close out the game.

In complete disregard to traditional male gender role expectation, Williams-Goss wept openly in the hand-shake line immediately after the game, and gave a tearful, gut wrenching interview outside the locker room. As I watched him speak, I remember being amazed that someone so young could be so poised and articulate while in such an emotional state after a crushing loss. It is humanizing factors like these that help make sports so popular, and it's why I will be looking forward to the 2018 Final Four.