It had everything a championship should have. A dramatic backdrop, individual performances worthy of the climactic game, a coach with something to prove, and maybe a touch of domination, of the No. 1 team by the No. 2.
Two seasons removed from a brief brush with the way the other half of college basketball lives, Carolina capped off a 33-win, 4-loss season by doing almost everything right in a 75-70 NCAA championship win over Illinois – the Tar Heels’ fourth national title.
“Tonight, we were the better team,” Roy Williams ’72 said of his first championship as a head coach. “If we played them 10 times, who knows what would happen? But in the NCAA Tournament, it’s one game.”
One game in which junior Sean May scored 26 points and pulled 10 rebounds on the way to the tournament MVP award; in which junior Rashad McCants came up with 14 first-half points that helped the Heels build a 40-27 lead for the Illini to think about at halftime; in which they and their teammates dug down to find the right stuff to stop an Illinois rally from 15 points behind in the closing minutes.
Raymond Felton broke a 65-65 tie at the 5:10 mark with probably the biggest three-pointer of his career. Illinois tied it again at 2:28, then freshman Marvin Williams’ tip-in put Carolina ahead for good. As the Illini tried to answer, Felton stole an errant pass, drew a foul and made one of two shots to give the Heels a 73-70 lead.
Felton returned to the foul line to drain two shots for the final margin.
It was only the second loss of the season for Illinois, which was ranked first nationally for most of the season. But the Illini shot 27 percent in the first half, their worst of the year.
“I didn’t know if we had a great chance,” Williams said. “I just love this team as a family. Our guys stood up and made the big shots. We went out there and won it as a team.”
For Williams, in his second year at Chapel Hill and his 17th as a head coach, the title is not unlike the first one Dean Smith won at Carolina, when he constantly heard the charge that he built great teams but couldn’t win the big one. Williams went to four Final Fours at Kansas without winning one.
This championship had several ironies. Illini Coach Bruce Weber was at Illinois because Bill Self left for Kansas because Williams went home to Chapel Hill. The players who led Carolina to St. Louis were the recruits of Matt Doherty ’84, who was pushed out after three adventurous years on the Heels’ bench. And May, who was vilified in his home state for not following in his father Scott’s footsteps to Indiana, put up a performance on his birthday that earned him the same national title his father had won.
The Tar Heels finished 8-20 three years ago, the program in unaccustomed turmoil. That made the win especially sweet not only for the juniors but for seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott.
“People can learn from us,” Scott said in the locker room. “What all this team went through, what all the people said about us, we stuck together and here we are. When it was over, Dean Smith and Michael Jordan came in here and congratulated us. How about that?”
Smith’s teams won national titles in 1982 and 1993, and Frank McGuire coached the 1957 team that won it all.
There was a feeling, too, that they had proved people wrong – that they were not a gaggle of talented individuals but a tight team
“I’m speechless,” Williams said. “Usually, I can talk my rear end off, but I’m speechless right now. I’m just so thankful and proud of these players. They took me for a heck of a ride. … This is a ride for North Carolina’s team.”