By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005

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 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.

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