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Michael Wilbon

Birthday Boy Helps Ice the Cake

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page D01

ST. LOUIS -- The whole game of college basketball is better off never having to waste another moment on if and when Roy Williams will win The Big One. Williams did the smartest thing a coach can do Monday night: He rode the shoulders of his Big One, 266-pound Sean May. The one thing this Illinois team didn't have was a wide-load defender. North Carolina made the Illini pay for it by dumping the ball to May enough to get a 75-70 NCAA championship victory that featured two signature Illinois comebacks and a near-perfect performance.

The difference in the game, clearly, was May, the Birthday Boy, son of Scott, a big load of a Tar Heel. Yes, Raymond Felton made the huge steal that probably sealed North Carolina's victory. But May is the player who continued the tradition of big performances in St. Louis NCAA title games.

Once upon a time, in 1973 to be exact, UCLA's Bill Walton made 21 of 22 shots. And five years later, also here under the Arch, Jack Givens poured in 41 to beat Duke. May, while less prolific, was dominant in this particularly context. On his 21st birthday he hit 10 of 11 shots and had 26 points, including 11 straight for his team during one stretch, and 10 rebounds. The other Tar Heels threw up enough ill-advised shots to leave the door open for another Illini comeback, and they indeed tied the game at 70.

But freshman Marvin Williams's tip-in of a terrible Rashad McCants shot provided the decisive points and Felton finished it from there. To the notion that Illinois was a better team than North Carolina, which was thought to be less than the sum of its considerable parts, Felton said, "Who wins a national championship if they're not together?"

While the Tar Heels were celebrating and gloating, they'd better give special thanks to May, actually, to both Mays, daddy Scott and son Sean.

How's this for symmetry: Sean's 26 points matched his father's total that finished off Indiana's perfect 1976 season.

"But he didn't have 10 rebounds," the son said.

More important, it was May who staked North Carolina to just enough of a lead. "We tried everything," Illinois Coach Bruce Weber said.

Or as Felton said when asked about the strategy of throwing the ball into May on six straight possessions when Illinois was charging back: "He was killing. Why wouldn't I go into him? It was the right thing to do."

Illinois' James Augustine fouled out in nine minutes of play with zero points trying to guard May. And his backup, James Ingram, committed four fouls.

Yet, it's unimaginable that Illinois will be pointedly criticized for losing. The Illini's primary sin was missing shots, 43 of 70 to be exact. "We had shots, open shots," Weber said. "Our kids played themselves to exhaustion." Perhaps they played themselves to exhaustion by taking 40 three-point attempts. Perhaps they also knew the best strategy was to simply stay away from May, then steal the game in the end.

It nearly worked, despite shooting 38.6 percent to Carolina's 51.9 percent.

Illinois, even in defeat, very likely walked away with the admiration of a basketball public that wanted to see this championship match, that wanted to see something with dramatic swings and big plays and ultimately something close and worth hollering about. With no inside scoring or defense to speak of, the Illini kids had guts enough to come back by whatever means necessary to even the game late. But their "B" game wasn't going to be enough to defeat Carolina with May going 10 for 11.

It's too bad such a wonderful season will also be remembered for two crushing plays: the Ohio State three-point shot back on March 6 that ruined what would have otherwise been an undefeated season coming into this game, and Head's errant pass with about 30 seconds to play.

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