MAY DAY: UNC wins fourth NCAA title
Published in Sports on April 5, 2005 1:57 PM
ST. LOUIS -- Team vs. Talent? Nonsense.
North Carolina was so much more than just a bunch of ball-hogging, slam-dunking, soon-to-be NBAers. This was a quite a team -- with just the right coach, too.
The Tar Heels were floating higher than the St. Louis Arch on Monday night, having claimed their first national title since 1993 with a 75-70 victory over Illinois.
Everything came together to produce a championship that was Carolina Blue, through and through.
Dean Smith and Michael Jordan cheered their old school from the stands. The players took turns carrying the load -- starting with Rashad McCants, then Sean May and, finally, Raymond Felton. When it was done, as confetti settled gently on the hardwood, coach Roy Williams was able to shed tears of joy instead of anguish after all those close-but-no-cigar years at Kansas.
A team effort, indeed.
"A lot of people said we were just talented, but not a team," May said. "But when times got tough, we banded together and came through. We showed we're not just talented. We're a team."
May celebrated his 21st birthday with 26 points, giving the family another championship to put on the mantel. His father, Scott, scored 26 for Indiana in the 1976 title game, the Hoosiers completing their perfect season.
Illinois (37-2) was nearly perfect, losing its final regular-season game on a last-second shot. The Illini, ranked No. 1 in the country since December, got to the cusp of the winningest season in NCAA history only to run out of gas in the waning minutes of the final game.
"We went down fighting," coach Bruce Weber said. "I can't ask for more."
North Carolina (33-4) led 40-27 at halftime, with McCants piling up 14 points. He wouldn't score again, but it didn't matter.
As Illinois stormed back in the second half with a barrage of 3-pointers, the Tar Heels were pounding the ball inside to May. One player fouled out trying to stop the rugged, 6-foot-9 junior. Another finished with four fouls. May took 11 shots in all; only one failed to drop through the hoop.
After the Illini tied it up, Felton stepped up. He made a huge steal in the final minute, intercepting a pass by Luther Head, drawing a foul and making one free throw. When Head missed a tying 3-pointer, Felton grabbed the loose ball, was fouled again and swished two free throws to clinch it.
The Tar Heels didn't allow a basket over the excruciating final 21/2 minutes.
When May cradled his 10th and final rebound, Williams took off his glasses and started looking for people to hug. A few moments later, he was crying, much like he has at the end of every season. Usually, the tears come because he has to say goodbye. No goodbye will be as sweet as this one.
The resume is complete. In his 17th season, after four foiled appearances in the Final Four with Kansas, Williams finally has his championship.
"For Coach to be able to say that the first team to get him a championship was the 2005 team is an honor," May said. "He'll win a few more before he's done."
Two years ago, Williams made the agonizing decision to leave the Jayhawks and go home to North Carolina to clean up the mess that had been left by his predecessor, Matt Doherty.
Don't forget: These seniors started their college careers with a 20-loss season. Now they're champions.
"These seniors," Williams said, "they took me for a heck of a ride."
The feeling is mutual.
"He is the greatest coach," Felton said. "If he retired tomorrow, I would vote for him for the Hall of Fame. He told us he would bring us a championship and we did it as a team."
The Illini shot 27 percent in the first half and trailed by 15 early in the second. They tied the game twice in the last 51/2 minutes, but when they had a chance to force overtime, Head missed a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left, ending their chance to break the NCAA record for wins in a season.
They'll have to settle for being tied with Duke (1986, '89) and UNLV ('87).
"It was just so much fun," Weber said. "Last night, I kind of cried in front of the team because it was the last meeting and you don't want it to end. We knew it was going to be the last ballgame. There are no more ballgames. I'm sad that it's over."
Head led Illinois with 21 points, but he'd prefer to forget that final minute. There was that crucial turnover, and he missed a wide-open look at a 3-pointer to tie the game at 73.
"I thought I saw somebody who was open who wasn't open," Head said. "As far as the shots, I just missed them."
During the week, Williams told the story of Smith insisting he was no better a coach after he finally won his first title in 1982 on his seventh trip to the Final Four.
When Williams walked into the interview room after this win, his first statement echoed Smith.
"I'm no better coach than I was three hours ago," Williams declared.
North Carolina won its fourth title overall, fourth-most in NCAA history and one more than archrival Duke. Celebrating in the locker room afterward were Jordan and Smith, who was Williams' mentor and persuaded him to return home from Kansas.
Everyone kept coming back to the same theme: team.
"People said all year we're not a team," said freshman Marvin Williams, who had a key tip-in with 1:26 left. "But we showed everybody. The best team won."
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