UNC comes together as team, exits as champs
ST. LOUIS -- The coach killers. The soft underachievers. The loosely knit confederation of mercenary talent.
More importantly, Carolina is a team of champions. The criticisms all vanished into the St. Louis night, replaced by snipped nets and broad smiles -- and, here's something new, season-ending tears of joy for Roy Williams.
The joy of Roy was made possible by the guys recruited by former coach Matt Doherty with the expectation of returning a backsliding Tar Heels program to the summit of college basketball. Doherty didn't make it to this point with the group, handing the baton (and the burden) to Williams two years ago. Monday night the juniors came through in the Edward Jones Dome -- delivering on their potential, and in the process delivering one for Williams' famously naked ring finger.
May, Felton and McCants combined for 57 points, as the Heels white-knuckled through a determined comeback charge by admirable Illinois, 75-70. May and McCants got them a 15-point lead early in the second half, and Felton rescued the game after that lead disappeared late. And when it was over, Carolina's fourth national title was worthy of a postgame visit from program patriarch Dean Smith and a former Tar Heel of some small renown, Michael Jordan.
"You guys almost gave me a heart attack," Jordan told the boys. "But you got it done."
They couldn't have gotten it done without May. The powerhouse center (and 21st-birthday boy) had a Bill Walton Lite stat line, making 10-of-11 shots, scoring 26 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. But the stats actually bore an even stronger resemblance to his dad's performance in leading Indiana to the 1976 national title. Both scored 26 points, and both were named the tournament Most Outstanding Player.
"When we sit down tonight and talk about the game, I'll tell him, 'You might have had 26 points and you might have been a Final Four MVP, but I had 10 boards and you didn't do that,' " May said, breaking up the postgame interview room. "So we'll have some fun with that."
For the record, Sean beat Dad on the boards by two. Scott's rebuttal will be Indiana's 32-0 record, but he couldn't dominate the final the way his son did. Illinois' big men had two choices: play hack-a-Sean or get run over by the 6-9, 255-pounder. Neither worked.
"We tried everything," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.
At one point Carolina fed the ball to May on six straight possessions.
"He was just killing them," Felton said. "Why wouldn't I give it to him? Everybody (on the Carolina bench) was screaming, 'Get the ball inside to Sean.' I mean, it was the right thing to do."
After it was over and May had nearly squeezed the life out of Williams, he unsuccessfully scanned the crowd for his dad. Turns out Scott and his Indiana running buddy, Quinn Buckner, had retreated to the back of the dome to watch the game on one of the giant overhead screens.
"Too nervous," said Sean's mom, Debbie, seated in the first row of the Carolina rooting section. "Uncle Quinn and Pops, those two old fellas, couldn't stand to watch."
With Scott out of sight, Sean embraced his mom and his big brother, Scott Jr., a walk-on on Indiana's 2002 national runner-up. Sean slapped his national championship hat on Scott Jr.'s head.
"He's been living in my dad's footsteps," Scott Jr. said. "Now he's got a championship ring of his own. He deserves it. He's a special person."
Said Sean: "This wasn't about Scott May's son. This is about me living out my dreams."
This was a game that validated the pregame hype of a dream matchup, and it provided a fitting final act to a memorable season and terrific NCAA Tournament. With tension and drama permeating the building until the final 10 seconds, Illinois showed the willpower that won it 37 games and Carolina showed the mettle and cohesion some doubted it possessed.
"We don't care what people say, because we are the champions," said the mercurial McCants, who told reporters after the game that he is probably turning pro. "So they can kiss our butts."
That might not be proper Tar Heels etiquette, but then again, neither was the jaunty hip-hop dance the entire team did on the podium for the postgame trophy presentation. This group has never really operated by the strictures of the Carolina Way, deepening the furrows on Williams' brow on many occasions, but it all worked out in the end.
A program was restored. A championship was won. A worthy opponent was vanquished in a dramatic conclusion.
"It's almost like a written book," Felton said. "What a way to finish. What a way to end the story."
Felton was responsible for ending it with powder blue on top -- just when it appeared that Carolina was perpetrating an epic choke.
Illinois took punch after punch and kept coming. Carolina inconceivably strayed from its meal ticket, May, who didn't get a touch in scoring position in the final four minutes. (That's partly May's fault, as he didn't work very hard to get around Roger Powell's denial defense.)
Meanwhile, the shots others took were enough to drive Heels fans to despair. Melvin Scott, of all people, launched a quick shot in transition. Freshman Marvin Williams took a perimeter jumper. McCants, who didn't score in the second half, waltzed maddeningly out of line one last time, driving into baseline traffic for a no-hope reverse layup. Marvin Williams fortuitously tipped it in at 1:25 to give Carolina the lead for good.
After that, it was all on Felton, whom May called "the team MVP and the best player in the nation."
The brassy point guard played confidently through foul trouble and made several huge plays in the final 5:08, beginning with a quick-trigger 3-pointer that broke a tie at 65. Then, with Carolina clinging to that 72-70 lead and Illinois working for its third shot in a dramatic possession, Felton made the play of the game.
Luther Head had driven into the lane, and as he dished a pass to the wing for Deron Williams, Felton flashed in front to deflect it and grab it. Illinois had no choice but to foul at that point, and Felton made one of two.
On Illinois' last possession to tie, Head got a good look at a 3 but missed, and the 6-1 (at best) Felton claimed the rebound. His two free throws with 9.9 seconds left iced the game.
"I just went after the ball," Felton said. "It's all about heart, you know. That what our team has, we have heart."
They have heart, soul, guts, moxie and enough cohesion to get them through the night on the final Monday of the season. The rings are on order. Three years in the making and probably on the verge of breaking up, the Carolina junior class became national champions.
The label fits, and the label sticks.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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