ST. LOUIS - Junior center Sean May put North Carolina in control of last night's NCAA final. Marvin Williams, the freshman who may not be long for college basketball, rescued the Tar Heels after Illinois showed what it is made of.
With Williams scoring the winning points on a left-handed put-back, North Carolina ended a long wait - and a longer one for coach Roy Williams - with a 75-70 conquest of the top-ranked Fighting Illini in a distinctive NCAA final before 47,262 at the Edward Jones Dome.
It was the first championship game between the nation's top-ranked teams since 1975. The second-ranked Tar Heels (33-4) won their fourth NCAA title - only UCLA, Kentucky and Indiana have more - but their first since 1993.
Besides matching what were clearly the nation's best teams, the game also brought together a pair of hard-luck stories.
The 100th season of Fighting Illini basketball included their 37th NCAA tournament win. No other program in the nation has recorded as many without getting a title. Roy Williams, meanwhile, entered last night with 40 NCAA wins, but he is no longer the winningest tournament coach without a championship.
"I'm just so happy for myself, my family and these seniors who went 8-20," Williams said of a class that includes Baltimore's Melvin Scott. "They took me for a heck of a ride."
He left his team's celebration and climbed into the stands to hug his wife, Wanda. May wandered in that direction and asked "Where's my Dad?"
The Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, May made 10 of his 11 shots, scored a game-high 26 points, cradled his 10th rebound after one final Illinois miss, and completed the second father-son duo in NCAA history with basketball titles. Scott May starred for Indiana's undefeated 1976 champions.
May turned 21 yesterday. He was serenaded with the "Happy Birthday" song, but only after the North Carolina fans chanted "One more year!" Maybe that plea was directed at Marvin Williams, the Tar Heels' sixth man but the possible No. 1 choice in the next NBA draft.
"It's not supposed to be easy," May said. "They got hot."
In a game that lived up to its hype, Illinois (37-2) came back from a 15-point second-half deficit but didn't score after Luther Head's three-pointer got them a tie at 70 with 2:39 left.
Two possessions later, Rashad McCants drove the left baseline and flipped up a wild reverse try. Williams elevated and with his left hand banked in what turned out to be the decisive points with 1:30 left.
Raymond Felton then stole a lazy pass by Head, made a free throw and two more after Head missed a three from the right side with 15 seconds left that would have tied it.
Felton finished with 17 points and seven assists, and McCants had 14 points - all in the first half.
Head got 15 of his 21 in the second half, but the perimeter trio of Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams made just 19 of 47 shots. A usually sharp team looked dull in the first half, when it missed 19 of its last 22 attempts and twice gave up baskets out of timeouts.
The greatest season in Illinois history ended in another dose of frustration. Coach Bruce Weber's crew ruled the Big Ten and sat atop the rankings since early December, but became the fourth college team with a record 37 wins and no NCAA title.
"I didn't think we played very hard in the first half," Weber said. "We came back valiantly."
North Carolina turned a tenuous 27-25 lead into a 40-27 cushion at halftime with a stirring 13-2 run.
Illinois center James Augustine, who played just nine minutes, got his third and fourth fouls in the second minute of the second half and the Tar Heels twice pushed their lead to 15, but Head and Deron Williams heated up and Illinois scored on eight straight possessions, including five three-pointers.
With the pro-Illinois crowd getting louder with each bomb, the Fighting Illini scored 10 straight points to get within 52-50. North Carolina steadied itself by returning to May, whose free throws made it 65-55 with 8:51 remaining, but Illinois responded with a 10-0 run that forced a tie at 65.
Felton beat a double team out top with a three, Deron Williams came back with a two and May's free throws made it 70-67 with 4:21 left. After Head's three tied it, Illinois went stone cold again, as it missed its last five shots, all three-point attempts.
Two years ago, after his final Kansas team lost to Syracuse in the championship game, Williams returned to his alma mater, which had slid to the lower third of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Williams inherited a talented but directionless core of Felton, May and McCants. Last night completed a six-win, 18-day stretch that fully restored the Tar Heels to their customary glory, and the day included a nod to the coach's mentor.
When North Carolina won 12 years ago in New Orleans, Dean Smith spit in the Mississippi River for good luck. At lunch hour yesterday, the North Carolina team bus pulled up beneath the Gateway Arch, and revived that ritual.
"To come into the locker room and have Michael Jordan hug me and have Dean Smith hug me, I am overwhelmed," said Scott (Southern High) after being congratulated by North Carolina basketball's two greatest figures. "We're going down in history."