ST. LOUIS -- North Carolina won the national championship here on Monday night at precisely 8:44 p.m. Central time. That was the moment when Raymond Felton picked up his second foul. The championship game was 7 minutes 3 seconds old, and the Tar Heels were leading Illinois 14-12.
As soon as he picked up the foul, Felton walked over to the bench and said a few words to Roy Williams, the man in the Edward Jones Dome under the most intense spotlight. Everyone knew what he was doing. He was pleading with Williams to let him stay in the game.
North Carolina's Roy Williams won his first national championship coaching with the same conviction that has been a staple of his career.
(Mark Humphrey - AP)
"Coach, I'll be okay, I'm all right, you don't need to take me out," Felton said.
"I've heard that one before," Williams said. But he listened. He understood completely what was at stake. If he left Felton in and he picked up his third foul and Carolina ended up losing the game, Williams would live forever with yet another series of second guesses.
And he didn't care. He knew Felton had to stay in the game, especially against Illinois' outstanding trio of guards. He knew this was the national championship game, and on the first Monday night in April you don't worry about tradition or the way you normally play. He left Felton in and switched to a zone defense, not a passive one, but one that attacked Illinois' outside shooters. Instead of trying to stay in the game until halftime, Carolina took control, storming to a 40-27 lead. Felton had eight points and six assists by the break and his consistent ability to penetrate -- and not pick up that third foul -- played a crucial role.
"I took him out a couple times because I could sense he was getting tired," Williams said. "Sometimes when he fouls it's because he's tired. I didn't want to take a chance on that happening."
As it turned out, the Tar Heels needed every last bit of that lead, because Illinois was a team with huge heart and moxie. The Illini came from 15 points down early in the second half and then, after the lead got back to 10, they came back to tie the score twice more. Surely Ol' Roy's heart must have almost stopped when senior Melvin Scott took a brutally ill-conceived shot with Carolina up 70-67, and Luther Head instantly responded to tie the score at 70 with 2:42 to play.
This time though, there was no heartbreak for Williams. After Rashad McCants forced a shot in traffic, Marvin Williams came through the lane to grab the ball out of the air and put it back in with 1:21 to go.
That was the winning basket. It wasn't quite as dramatic as the shot Michael Jordan made in this game 23 years ago, but it was equally important. As well as Carolina played for most of the game, Illinois simply refused to go away. The Illini came back to tie, but could never take the lead. After Head had tied the score, Williams called timeout. When his team came to the bench, for the first time all night, he saw just a hint of doubt in their eyes.
"Heck, they [Illinois] had just hit five or six shots in a row or something like that," Williams said. "I just looked at them and said, 'We're fine. We're going to get a good shot here, then we're going to get a stop and win the game.' "
When it was over, this was what Williams did: He took off his glasses, which he only uses to see distances, so he could walk down and look Bruce Weber in the eye when he shook hands with him. He apologized to Weber for the fact that his players had forgotten to shake hands with the Illini before beginning their celebration.
"Are you kidding?" Weber said. "They deserve to celebrate. They earned this."
Williams, so famous for his crying jags in defeat, was dry-eyed in his ultimate moment of victory. Perhaps he sensed that this was finally his time. He coached the championship game without fear, clearly not intimidated by the moment, the game or even the roaring Illinois crowd that may have produced the first dome home-court advantage in history.
"They deserved to win," Weber said, gracious as could be in the aftermath of his and his school's first national title game. "I thought we showed a lot of character coming back the way we did. Roy did a great job protecting Felton with the zone in the first half. It's the national championship game. He understood, I think, he had to have his guy out there."