SYRACUSE, N.Y., March 27 -- When Roy Williams left a powerhouse program at Kansas to return to North Carolina following the 2002-03 season, he said he was simply going home.
Now, thanks to an 88-82 Syracuse Region final victory over scrappy Wisconsin at the Carrier Dome on Sunday, the Tar Heels are going back to their home away from Chapel Hill: the Final Four.
Raymond Felton (17 points, seven assists) begins to celebrate in the closing seconds. Roy Williams will make his fifth appearance in the Final Four, his first as coach at his alma mater.
(Mike Segar -- Reuters)
North Carolina's 16th Final Four appearance and first since 2000 will be especially sweet for Williams, who agonized over his decision to leave Kansas following a loss to Syracuse in the 2003 national championship game.
Williams was an assistant under Dean Smith when the Tar Heels won the 1982 national championship and led Kansas to four Final Fours and two championship game appearances in 15 seasons but will be making his first Final Four appearance as the head coach of his alma mater.
Following Sunday's victory, which improved Williams to 5-1 in region finals, Williams shared a hug with seniors Melvin Scott, Jackie Manuel and Jawad Williams, who were members of the 2001-02 team that finished 8-20 and became the first Tar Heels team to miss the NCAA tournament since 1974.
"That was a special feeling," Roy Williams said. "Those kids went through a lot. Those kids went through something no one at North Carolina had ever gone through and I saw it from a distance so it really feels good to be able to share this with them."
There were moments during Sunday's crisply played game when it appeared Williams and his players would be sharing only disappointment. Wisconsin (25-9) played a terrific game, shooting 49.2 percent from the field and making 11 of 24 three-point attempts and 11 of 13 free throws.
The Badgers scored the last 11 points of the first half and the first five points of the second to open a 49-44 lead with 17 minutes 48 seconds remaining.
Wisconsin was led by sophomore forward Alando Tucker, who displayed a lightning-quick first step while slashing and slicing his way to 25 points, and by senior guard Clayton Hanson, a former walk-on who kept his team close during the first half by making three of his five three-pointers.
Tucker, Hanson and sophomore guard Kammron Taylor, who scored 18 points, had to be sharp to offset the dominating inside presence of North Carolina junior forward Sean May, who scored a game-high 29 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
The Tar Heels opened the game by pounding the ball inside to May, who scored eight of his team's first 10 points and helped North Carolina jump out to a 20-11 lead. However, when the Tar Heels went to a zone defense, the Badgers exploited it with crisp passing and sharp shooting. Hanson made three consecutive three-pointers, and Taylor and Sharif Chambliss hit two more to draw Wisconsin into a halftime tie at 44.
North Carolina answered Wisconsin's 16-0 run with a 14-0 run and overcame a brief departure by point guard Raymond Felton, who rolled an ankle while coming down after a jump shot with just more than 14 minutes remaining.
When Felton returned at the 11:39 mark, he promptly made a tough pull-up jump shot to give the Tar Heels a 66-61 lead.
"We kept our poise the whole game," said Felton, who scored 17 points, dished out seven assists and made all six of his free throws in 33 minutes. "A team is going to make their run, especially teams playing at this time of year because they're all good. They're going to hit their shots, but we kept our poise, hit our shots and made our run, too."
The Badgers stayed within striking distance and trailed 81-78 with 56 seconds remaining after Taylor made a three-pointer from the wing. But Taylor missed a three-point attempt, and Felton made six consecutive free throws in the final 52 seconds to put away the game.
"For us to shoot the percentage that we did, in all three categories, and take care of the ball . . . we gave ourselves a chance," Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan said. "But their offense, their ball movement, their post feeds, their finishes around the basket, that's where they were better than us this afternoon."
The Tar Heels will now try to capture their fourth national championship and first since 1993. Doing so would help Williams avoid joining Houston's Guy Lewis as the only coaches to make five Final Four appearances without winning a title.
"I would love nothing more than to walk over to Coach after the championship game and give him a hug knowing we'd helped win it," May said. "That's what we're going to St. Louis to do."