The University of North Carolina has captured college basketball's national championship by defeating the University of Illinois 75-70, Monday night in a thriller at the Edward Jones Dome in Saint Louis.
It was supposed to be a dream match-up - top-ranked Illinois against number-two North Carolina. But it was a nightmare for Illinois in the first half, as the team shot a miserable 27-percent from the floor, while North Carolina made more than 55-percent of its shots for a 40-27 half-time lead.
Even so, Illinois turned things around in the final 20 minutes. After falling behind by as much as 15 points, the Fighting Illini went on a 10-0 run and cut the Tar Heels' lead to four points. it kept battling and managed to tie the game at 70-70 with 2:40 left. Illinois Coach Bruce Weber says his team gave everything it had.
"Came back valiantly, played our hearts out in the second half," said Coach Weber. "Told the kids they should not hang their head. And you know, we had some chances down the stretch - we just could not get it down."
The game remained tied until Tar Heels guard Raymond Felton stole a pass from Luther Head and made a three point shot, with just 25 seconds left. North Carolina scored its last two points on free-throws to make the final 75-70. Felton talks about sealing the win.
"On the steal situation I just did what coach Williams has been telling me to do all season," he said. "You know, deny the pass. And, basically, they threw the ball into my hands and I just knocked it away and went and got it."
The win finally gave second-year North Carolina Coach Roy Williams the first national championship of his stellar 17-year career. He came close with Kansas, taking them to the Final Four on four occasions, but failing to win the title.
North Carolina center Sean May, who turned 21 Monday, scored a game-high 26 points on 10-for-11 shooting. He also picked off 10 rebounds and was named the Outstanding Player of the Tournament. In a strange coincidence, May's father, Scott May also scored 26 points in the final and was named Outstanding Player, as he led Indiana to a perfect season and the championship in 1976.
"I tried to do some of the things that he has done. It is very gratifying to know that you set goals for yourself and you are able to achieve those goals," he said. " But when we sit down tonight and talk about the game, I'll tell him: 'You know, you might have had 26 points and you might have been a Final Four MVP, but I had 10 boards [rebounds] and you did not do that, so. We will have some fun with that."
The Tar Heels won their fourth national championship - their first since 1993. The loss denied Illinois a record-setting 38th win of the season and the first National Collegiate Athletic Association title in its 100-year history. Illini guard Deron Williams had mixed emotions about the season.
"I already think it is a success, you know? Our goal was to get to the Final Four and compete for the national championship and we did that," said Coach Williams. "You know, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, not getting to cut down the nets and not getting to see these seniors go out with a bang like we wanted them to."
The Illini missed five three-pointers down the stretch, part of a night in which they made just 12 of a season-high 40 attempts from beyond the arc and just 39 percent, overall.