ST. LOUIS, April 2 -- Jawad Williams rose high above the rim early in the second half Saturday, converting an alley-oop dunk that gave North Carolina its first advantage after halftime, a lead it never relinquished.
The senior stormed downcourt with a scowl that was four years in the making. Williams, who endured one of the darkest periods in the program's rich history -- an 8-20 season in 2001-02 -- helped lead the Tar Heels to their brightest moment in more than a decade.
North Carolina's David Noel slams as Michigan State's Alan Anderson looks on as the Tar Heels explode past the Spartans in the second half for a 87-71 win Saturday.
(Ryan McKee - AP)
North Carolina outran Michigan State, 87-71, in Saturday's national semifinal before 47,754 at the Edward Jones Dome, earning a berth in its first national title game since 1993, the last time the Tar Heels won the championship.
"I went over to Jawad and told him, 'The reason we won this game was because of your heart,' " teammate Sean May said.
The victory inched North Carolina Coach Roy Williams ever closer to his first national championship and set up a title game matchup Monday between the teams that have been most dominant all season, North Carolina (32-4) and Illinois (37-1).
The Spartans (26-7) were unafraid to run with the high-octane Tar Heels, the nation's highest-scoring team, and may have done so to their own demise. North Carolina turned a five-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead less than eight minutes into the second half.
"Coach told us we had to play harder in the second half if we wanted to win," Carolina point guard Raymond Felton said. "He got the point across, let's put it that way."
There is little debate that North Carolina possesses the most talent of any of the 65 teams in the NCAA tournament. To that point, freshman Marvin Williams, who likely will be a lottery pick in this June's NBA draft should he choose to turn pro, scored just two points, which came late in the second half.
Instead, the Tar Heels were led by the other Williams, Jawad, who scored 20 and grabbed eight rebounds. Williams had scored a combined 18 points in the four NCAA tournament games this season.
"Jawad is a winner," Roy Williams said. "He is a senior who has been through a great deal of tough times."
Directing the Tar Heels with precision throughout was Felton, who finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. In one first-half sequence, Felton first threw an alley-oop pass to Rashad McCants for a dunk. Then Felton fired a bounce pass from near midcourt to a streaking David Noel, who converted the right-handed dunk to tie the score early.
Michigan State led by five at halftime despite being thoroughly outshot during the first 20 minutes and playing without a healthy Alan Anderson. The senior played only 20 minutes Saturday and went scoreless for the first time all season.
Anderson said he had hurt his knee in the Austin Region final victory over Kentucky and missed two days of practice this week.
"It was a worry," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "I did feel he was kind of out of it. We thought he was one of those X-factors for us."
The game's most important matchup was between Paul Davis and May, both of whom had played particularly well in regional play. In the first half, May made 2 of 8 shots; Davis made 3 of 9. Most importantly, Davis, who also had seven rebounds in the first half, jogged into the locker room at the break with only one foul.
May had his way in the second half, though, coming alive in the first minute with a layup and finishing with a team-high 22 points. "He came out a lot more aggressive, demanding the ball," Davis said.
Felton keyed the second-half run, making two three-pointers and figuring in on numerous other scoring plays. When the point guard flipped a pass to McCants for a three-pointer that gave the Tar Heels a 10-point advantage, Felton pumped his fist and jumped in the air at midcourt.
North Carolina's defense has been criticized all season, particularly after an early exit from the ACC tournament and struggles against Villanova and Wisconsin in the Syracuse Region. But the Tar Heels held Michigan State to only 29.4 percent shooting in the second half.
Izzo said Illinois can run with North Carolina better than the Spartans were able to Saturday. But if Jawad Williams duplicates his effort, Izzo said, it gives the Tar Heels "another dimension."
Added McCants: "We don't care who we play in the championship game. That talk about a 'dream game' is just something made up by all of you members of the media."