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One (Tar) Heel of a national championship

N. CAROLINA 75, ILLINOIS 70: Sean May's offense and Raymond Felton's defense give Roy Williams his title.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published April 5, 2005


ST. LOUIS - This time, finally, coach Roy Williams could shed tears of joy.

After four misses in the Final Four and unceasing, sometimes needling, questions about failing to win college basketball's big one, Williams could get emotional about guiding a champion. And it just happened to be his alma mater, where the bar for success is a banner.

His No.2-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels, thanks largely to the dominating play of junior center Sean May and the defensive play of junior point guard Raymond Felton in the final minute, beat No.1 Illinois 75-70 Monday night at the Edward Jones Dome in the first championship showdown between the nation's top teams since 1975.

"This is unbelievable," May said. "All the hard work, long hours. It has paid off. It's finally paid off. I'm so excited for Coach. He finally got his game."

May, who celebrated his 21st birthday Monday, had the kind of performance his father, Scott, had when he won a title at Indiana in 1976.

May, the most outstanding player of the Final Four, had 26 points on a near-flawless 10-of-11 shooting and 10 rebounds.

His father had 26 and eight in an 86-68 victory against Michigan.

But it was Felton who stole a pass from Illinois senior guard Luther Head and saved the day. Felton then made a free throw, and after Head misfired, Felton grabbed the rebound and made both free throws to seal Carolina's fourth title and first since 1993.

"I was wide open. Coach ran a great play," Head said. "I just missed it."

Go ahead, Coach Williams, you can well up.

"It means a lot. There's no question there," Williams said.

You also can forgive Illinois coach Bruce Weber for being emotional. He's a guy who cries at the Sound of Music , and this night, he saw his players' quest to "Finish the Job," as their T-shirts proclaimed, and make history come up short.

The Illini (37-2), who tied the Division I record for wins in a season, were in the title game for the first time and seeking their first championship in the program's 100-year history.

"There's not much you can say," Weber said. "We had a tremendous year. It was just a special journey."

Not so much in the first half. North Carolina (33-4) used a 13-2 run to build a 40-27 halftime lead that brought its fans to their feet as chants of "Let's go Tar Heels" reverberated through the cavernous dome.

Meanwhile, the Illini fans stood, many stone silent with their arms crossed as their team looked befuddled.

"I didn't think we fought very hard in the first half," Weber said. "They wanted it more. It was more important to them."

His team allowed the Tar Heels to hit 55.2 percent of their shots and made just 27 percent of its attempts, that against a Tar Heels defense that was supposed to their Achilles' heel.

May scored inside to push the lead to 15 moments into the second half, matching the deficit the Illini faced in the Chicago Region final against Arizona with 4:04 left.

Head and junior guard Deron Williams, however, got hot from the perimeter. Each hit his next three shots, two 3-pointers apiece, as the Illini cut the Carolina lead to 52-50 and reenergize the large Illini crowd among the 47,262.

But then North Carolina went to May. Again and again.

Six straight possessions. May scored 10 during that span and set up Jawad Williams for an open 3-pointer that gave North Carolina a 65-55 lead with 8:51 left.

It didn't help the Illini that junior forward James Augustine was on the bench with four fouls and was a nonfactor for much of the game.

"He was just killing," Felton said of May. "Why wouldn't I give it to him? Everybody was screaming, "Get the ball inside to Sean."'

Still, the Illini tied the score at 65. Felton ended the run with a 3-pointer, but Head tied the score minutes later at 70 with another 3-pointer to give him a team-high 21 points.

A tap-in by North Carolina freshman forward Marvin Williams made it 72-70, setting the stage for Felton's big plays during the final minute.

"You have to give credit to Felton," Weber said. "We tired. We played to exhaustion, and that's all I can ask the kids to do."

"I just wanted to make plays," Felton said. "I went after the ball. It's all about heart. This team has heart."

That touched off a wild celebration for the Tar Heels.