ST LOUIS – North Carolina coach Roy Williams has wanted questions about whether he can win a title to go away for some time. Now he can thank Raymond Felton for answering them.
In addition to a crucial steal with 26 seconds left, Felton made 3-of-4 free throws in the final seconds of Monday’s NCAA Championship to seal a 75-70 win for UNC.
With the Tar Heels leading 72-70 with 26 seconds to play, Felton stole a pass from Illinois guard Dee Brown and converted 1-of-2 free throws. Then, after Luther Head missed a potential tying 3-pointer, Felton knocked down two more free throws to ensure the victory.
“I just did what coach told me to do all season,” Felton said. “I got in the passing lanes … I knocked it away and went and got it.”
Williams, formerly the coach at Kansas, had been to four previous Final Fours as a coach but had never won a national title. The media had long speculated whether Williams had what it took.
“For 15 years, I had great kids at Kansas,” Williams said. “The last three or four days, I’ve had five or six of them give me a call, wish good luck and said that we were playing for them.”
UNC led by as many as 15 in the second half but with 2:38 to play, it looked as though Illinois might pull out another miraculous comeback as it did against Arizona nine days ago. Head hit a 3-pointer to tie at 70, forcing North Carolina to take a timeout. But the Tar Heels took the lead for good a minute later when UNC freshman Marvin Williams scored on a tip-in.
“We played to exhaustion and that’s all I ask the kids to do,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. “We went down fighting.”
Down the stretch, the play of UNC junior center Sean May made the difference. After scoring eight in the first half, May, who celebrated his 21st birthday Monday, scored 18 in the second half to lead all scorers with 26. He also had 10 rebounds. Illinois struggled to stop May inside, particularly after junior forward James Augustine was sent to the bench early in the second half after picking up his third and fourth fouls in a 10-second span. He later fouled out with 6:49 to play.
“All the hard work, long hours, it has paid off – it’s finally paid off,” May said. “This is the greatest birthday. I’m so excited for coach. He finally got his game.”
For the third year in a row, the national championship game was separated by double digits at half time. Illinois trailed 40-27 at the half, only the second time all season it had trailed at the break. UNC closed the first half on a 24-10 run characterized by staunch defense and hustle plays, including a diving save and timeout by junior forward Rashad McCants in front of the UNC bench.
Illinois shot 27 percent from the floor in the first half, including 5-of-19 from beyond the arc, while North Carolina made 6-of-11 of its 3-pointers. The Tar Heels also dominated inside, outscoring the Illini 18-8 inside.
Coming into Monday’s game, UNC was 25-0 when leading at the half and showed why by coming out strong early in the second. But Illinois refused to quit, hitting seven 3-pointers in the second half to get back into the game.
Monday’s victory was the fourth national title for the storied program, and its first since 1993. The win capped a historic weekend for the Tar Heels, who were competing in their 16th Final Four, an NCAA record.