Guard's late steal, free throws seal win for Tar Heels

Updated: April 5, 2005, 2:00 AM ET
Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- In one spectacular final minute, Raymond Felton outplayed Illinois' talented trio of guards all by himself.

The North Carolina junior stole a pass, then sank three free throws in the last 25.8 seconds of Monday night's championship game, securing the Tar Heels' 75-70 win.

"It boils down to whatever it takes to win," Felton said. "Make it happen. That's just what I did."

Felton overcame two early fouls and finished with 17 points and seven assists, more than holding his own against the Illini's touted threesome of Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams.

"When I see Raymond Felton, I just see one big heart and the toughness," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "He's a tough little rascal."

Felton sank a 3-pointer with 5:10 left to put the Tar Heels up 68-65. But his best play of the night came on defense.

The Illini trailed 72-70 and had the ball as the clock dipped under a minute. Head drove into the lane and tried to kick the ball to Williams on the wing. Anticipating the play perfectly, Felton held his ground, picked off the pass and went the other way.

"I thought I saw somebody open who wasn't open," Head said. "I passed the ball, they got a steal."

"They just threw the ball into my hands," Felton said.

Sean May, who scored 26 points and was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, saw the Illini sag after Felton made the play.

"When Ray made that steal, that was the biggest play of the game," May said. "You could see the look on some of those guys' faces that they didn't have a chance to pull it out."

When Head missed a 3-pointer with 16 seconds to go, May rebounded and Felton ended up with the ball again. He was fouled and this time swished both shots.

Felton finished what backcourt mate Rashad McCants started. McCants scored 14 points in the opening half, propelling North Carolina to a 40-27 lead.

He wasn't much of a factor in the second half, though, going 0-for-3 from the field in 14 ineffective minutes.

McCants said the game plan changed at halftime and the Tar Heels started looking for May.

"The first half was pretty much my half," said McCants, who hit 6 of 12 shots before the break. "In the second half, they had to respect me and Sean. With me out on the perimeter, they really couldn't help down on him and that left him open."

Felton played 15 minutes in the first half, despite picking up his second foul with 12:57 left. Coach Roy Williams took him out but only briefly. Illinois scored five quick points, and Felton was back on the floor in less than 2½ minutes.

"I just told him I would be OK, that I was going to play it smart," Felton said.

McCants was on the bench at the very end, and was anxiously hopping on the sideline as Felton hit his final free throws with 9.9 seconds left.

McCants ripped off his jersey moments after the game ended, confidently nodding to the fans.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press