ST. LOUIS, April 4 -- North Carolina Coach Roy Williams finally answered the skeptics. His junior forward Sean May, celebrating his 21st birthday, became a man. And a gutsy Illinois team closed the books on a near-perfect season with a historic three-point-shooting barrage only to fall short Monday night, as North Carolina won its fourth NCAA basketball championship, 75-70, before a crowd of 47,262 at the Edward Jones Dome.
With the victory, Williams shed the mantle of being the best college basketball coach to have never won a championship. May, named the game's most outstanding player, had a team-high 26 points and 10 rebounds and matched the national title his father, Scott, won with Indiana in 1976. He celebrated by sprinting to the sideline and burying his silver-haired coach in his arms.
Sean May, the championship game MVP and birthday boy, now 21, goes up for a slam as the Tar Heels built a 13-point halftime lead.
(Pool Photo Ryan Mckee -- Reuters)
As confetti rained, euphoria abounded for everyone in Carolina blue, particularly seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott, who had slogged through a school-record 20 losses as freshmen.
With the Tar Heels' legendary former coach, Dean Smith, and favorite son Michael Jordan looking on from a suite, Williams's bunch went a long way toward restoring the school's faded basketball glory. Better still, the Tar Heels made a triumphant stand for teamwork over talent, proving that even collegians gifted enough to play in the NBA tomorrow can subjugate their egos for the common good.
"We came out tonight and proved we are a team. We are together!" said point guard Raymond Felton, whose steal with 31 seconds remaining sucked the last gasp from the Illini. "We also are talented, but we also are together, too. As one!"
North Carolina (33-4) led by 15 points in the second half, but Illinois battled back hard, tying the score at 70 with less than three minutes to play. The Illini clawed and scratched in heart-stopping fashion, firing an NCAA championship game-record 40 three-point attempts in a frantic effort to give coach of the year Bruce Weber and their school a first basketball championship. But they simply couldn't produce a worthy foil for May, who owned the area under the basket. Fed a steady diet of assists by Felton, May converted 10 of his 11 shots and was a force on the defensive end, as well.
"He wanted to win a national championship; he played like it the whole tournament," Weber said with admiration. "He's tough to defend. We tried everything."
It was the matchup college basketball fans had clamored for since the tournament began, pitting the best and most entertaining teams in the country. It was No. 1 against No. 2 for the first time in 30 years of NCAA title games. It was the Big Ten's best versus the ACC's best. And it was Illinois' sharp-shooting trio of guards against North Carolina's imposing duo of Felton and Rashad McCants.
With Illinois just over the Mississippi River, hordes of Illini fans poured into St. Louis and bought up the tickets of dejected Louisville and Michigan State supporters to transform the Dome into an orange-coated home court, as loud as Weber's blaze-orange jacket.
With May asserting his 6-foot-9, 266-pound frame from the tip-off, Carolina's inside advantage was clear. Weber rotated a series of lanky forwards, but none was up to the task.
Illinois (37-2) paid dearly for its early defensive lapses. Carolina scored easy buckets off inbounds passes, and McCants (14 points) burned them when given room.
McCants scored seven consecutive points to put Carolina up 40-27, and Illinois squandered its last possession of the half, working the shot clock until it had no shot at all. That sent Carolina to the locker room with a 13-point lead on 55 percent shooting. The Tar Heels were 25-0 when leading at halftime during the season. It was only the third time in the Illini's near-perfect year that they'd trailed at the half.
Illinois guard Luther Head found his shooting touch early in the second half, hitting back-to-back three-pointers to cut the lead to 49-45. Roger Powell Jr. made it a two-point game with 12 minutes 45 seconds remaining, sending Illinois fans into a frenzy. Just as quickly, May answered with a three-point play.
The Tar Heels surged to a 65-55 lead, only to see the Illini reel off 10 straight points.
With 2:32 to play, Head drilled his fifth three-pointer to knot the score at 70. The Illinois bench stood, and nearly the whole arena sprang to its feet, but Illinois went on to miss its last five shots.
Freshman Marvin Williams got a put-back for a 72-70 Tar Heels lead. Felton batted away a pass by Head and ran downcourt. Fouls sent him to the line for the Tar Heels' final three points to cap their glorious night.
May called it the best moment of his life. Felton was on the verge of tears.
"He told us he would bring us a championship," Felton said of his coach, "and we did it as a team."