None finer: Carolina

For big-time Tar Heels, victory is no small feat

Ncaa Championship

NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

April 05, 2005|By David Steele

ST. LOUIS - The anticipation for this NCAA championship game was almost unprecedented in the past quarter-century. After all, this was No. 1 vs. No. 2, for the first time in 30 years, and in those three decades, there were plenty of legendary games involving teams with lesser credentials.

This one lived up to its billing. And hard as it might be to fathom when discussing an Illinois team that was atop the polls since early December and unbeaten until the regular-season finale, it ended the way it should have, with North Carolina No. 1.

Roy Williams had all but predicted it the day before, when he paraphrased a former assistant at Kansas, who had once told him, "On big game days, big-time players have got to play big."

North Carolina has had the biggest, baddest, best players from Day One of the season, and was accorded the privileges of a preseason No. 1 ranking by many. The Tar Heels gave that privilege away on the very first night of their season, 3,000 miles from home in Oakland, Calif., against Santa Clara. It took them until last night at Edward Jones Dome to re-stake their claim to greatness.

They did it with the talent that, by last night, many had proclaimed would not be enough against an Illinois team that supposedly was more poised, more together, more mature than the collection of lottery picks in blue.

But can anyone ever doubt the poise and character of the group of players that silenced what might have been the most overwhelming home crowd in the history of this tournament, driving on a team storming toward the winningest season of all time?

"I'm just waiting to see what everybody says at this point," Raymond Felton said with proud defiance. "I think we went out tonight and proved that we are a team, we are together. We won the national championship. What can people say now?

"And we are talented," he added. "I'm not gonna deny that."

So what will the people say? For certain, the orange avalanche that had blanketed the Midwest throughout March offered little in response at the end. As the North Carolina players cut down the nets, long after the final buzzer had sounded, it still sounded as if 47,262 were in the building, and as if about 40,000 of them were rooting for the same team.

But it was chants of "Let's Go Tar Heels!" and a "Happy Birthday" serenade to tournament Most Outstanding Player Sean May that echoed throughout. Thousands of Illinois fans were still in the dome, but they sat silent, stunned, numb - as their heroes surely felt at that same time.

"That even makes their win, I think, even more impressive," Illinois coach Bruce Weber acknowledged.

That is the very definition of poise, as stated by the architect of what had been the most poised team in the tournament to that point. But nothing Illinois had done could match what May, Felton, Marvin Williams and Co. - including, of all people, Rashad McCants - did last night.

There were fewer doubters about Felton than about many of his teammates, but none could be left around after what he did against the backcourt of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, which had controlled games in every conceivable situation for Illinois all season long. This time, Felton was the one dictating the pace and making the Illinois backcourt dance to it long after they got tired of the beat. And doing it with two early fouls, yet.

When the Illinois trio led the charge into the Final Four the previous weekend with the rousing comeback over Arizona, they seemed destined to be the last bunch standing. They made their charge again last night - yet they never took the lead. Felton held them off every time, right down to the two times in the final minutes that he got to a loose ball or got his hand on a pass a split-second before an Illinois player did, and down to the three free throws he hit in the final 25.8 seconds to ice the championship.

And the same went for the player deemed least stable and reliable, most reliant on his talent rather than his heart, McCants. From the opening tip he ran, dove and slithered into places logic and physics told us he shouldn't, yet he made it work.

Marvin Williams, the youngest, played like the oldest, bailing out McCants on a wild drive with 1:29 left and the score tied, tipping in the miss and putting the Heels ahead for good.

May simply was unstoppable, especially in the second half, particularly when his team needed him the most. His very presence, in combination with what Felton and McCants brought, made it seem almost unfair - until you remember that the team North Carolina was holding off was the standard by which every other team in the country was measured nearly all season long.

North Carolina, a proud but bruised program, picked the perfect night to play bigger than it ever had. To reclaim what should have been theirs all year, the Heels had to show the kind of poise that makes superstars, not simply future millionaires.

Last night, they showed the kind that made them champions.

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