Rashad McCants (search) made the big plays down the stretch, Sean May dominated inside and North Carolina is back in the Final Four (search) for the first time in five years. McCants swished a clutch 3-pointer and had two huge blocks on the other end, leading the top-seeded Tar Heels to an 88-82 victory over Wisconsin on Sunday in the final of the Syracuse Regional.
May led North Carolina (31-4) with 29 points and 12 rebounds, and Raymond Felton (search) added 15 points, including four free throws in the final minute to seal it. But it was McCants who did the most to end a marvelous run by the sixth-seeded Badgers (25-9) and send the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the first time since 2000.
With North Carolina clinging to a three-point lead, McCants jumped high to swat away a 3 by Clayton Hanson with about 2 minutes left, Hanson's only miss of the second half from beyond the arc. Later, when Kammron Taylor drove to the basket, McCants again was there to block the shot.
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Wisconsin closed within three again on an alley-oop dunk by Alando Tucker before McCants made his 3-pointer, coming off a screen by Marvin Williams to give North Carolina an 81-75 lead. He finished with 21 points.
That proved to be enough, and when the final buzzer sounded, McCants and Felton spent several seconds embracing in the lane, while their teammates quickly donned hats that read "Syracuse Regional Champions." Coach Roy Williams advanced to the Final Four for the fifth time in his career; after four trips with Kansas, he's taking his alma mater in only his second season as coach of the Tar Heels.
One by one, coach Williams sent his players up a ladder to cut down nets on both ends of the court. He did the same when North Carolina clinched its first outright Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title since 1993, choosing to ignore any criticism for celebrating before the NCAA (news - web sites) tournament.
No one could blame him this time.
Tucker scored 25 points for the Badgers, who never once tried to slow the pace. They scored more than 80 points for only the third time this season and the first since Dec. 27.
Still, they stayed close throughout, led by Tucker and the shooting of Hanson, a former walk-on. He scored 15 points — all on 3s — after averaging only 6.2 coming into the regional.
Hanson's final points came with 8:48 left, nailing a jumper after Mike Wilkinson passed out of a double team. That cut the Tar Heels' lead to 68-67, and although Wisconsin never led down the stretch, the margin never was greater than five until the final seconds.
Wilkinson scored from the baseline with 3:52 remaining to bring the Badgers within a single point, and after Felton clanged a 3-pointer off the rim, Wisconsin had a chance for the lead. But Taylor missed from the lane and May was there for the rebound, leading to two free throws from Marvin Williams to make it 76-73.
That's when Hanson tried again to tie it, and McCants made sure he didn't.
It was only fitting, since McCants likely gave up the most to help North Carolina become a better team. The leading scorer in the ACC last season as a sophomore, his average went down more than four points to 15.8 while May became the No. 1 offensive option.
The burly center certainly was that in this victory, shooting 13-of-19 to reach double figures for the 19th straight game. In 14 of those, he's also grabbed at least 10 rebounds, an incredible stretch that led to him being selected second-team All-America.