ST. LOUIS – Of course, there was no way it was going to be easy. North Carolina did it, though, and now it's time to stop asking Roy Williams (search) that doggone question.
Sean May (search) had 26 points and the Tar Heels didn't allow a basket over the final, excruciating 21/2 minutes Monday night to defeat Illinois 75-70, a win that finally gave Williams, the 17-year coaching veteran, the national championship that was missing from his otherwise stellar resume.
Freshman Marvin Williams had a tip-in with 1:26 left, Raymond Felton made three free throws would cruise to the championship. But Illinois (37-2) never quits.
Forward Jack Ingram (search) hit a pair of outside jumpers and Dee Brown scored six points as part of a 10-0 run that tied the game at 65 with 51/2 minutes left to set up a fantastic finish.
When it was over — after Felton had made his last two free throws, after May had cradled his 10th and final rebound — Williams took off his glasses and started looking for people to hug.
A few moments later, he was crying, much like he has at the end of every season — though no ending has been as sweet as this one.
Luther Head led Illinois with 21 points. He had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer that would have tied the game with 17 seconds left, but it bounded off and coach Bruce Weber's magical ride with the Illini wound up one win short of the real fairytale ending he hoped for.
His opponent, Williams, left Kansas to take over the Tar Heels two years ago, after the program Dean Smith built had faltered and fallen to 8-20. Williams took a ton of heat for leaving Kansas after losing in the title game in 2003 — his fourth close call at the Final Four.
He defended the move, saying coming back to his alma mater had always been his dream. Then, this week, he dealt with a more familiar question: Did he need to win a title to call his career a success?
He told the story of Smith insisting he was no better a coach after he finally won one in 1982, but Williams conceded that answering that "same doggone question" did get a little annoying at times.
He finally broke through in a terrific game, the first meeting of the top two teams in the final Associated Press poll since 1975, when UCLA defeated Kentucky.
After May made a short shot with 11:22 left in the first half for an 18-17 lead, Carolina never trailed again — but this game never really got comfortable.
May was unstoppable for the first 12 minutes of the second half, scoring 16 points during that stretch and dishing out two assists to help North Carolina push its lead to as many as 15 and fight off a number of Illinois rallies.
James Augustine, charged with stopping the 6-foot-9 center, was in foul trouble through most of it. Weber put him back in to try to slow May down, but oddly, it was when Augustine drew his fifth foul, with 7 minutes left, that the Illini finally caught up.
That Illinois could hang in there was no surprise. This was the team that rallied from 15 down with 4 minutes left against Arizona in the regional to make it to its first Final Four since 1989.
But the Illini could never take a lead. And after Head hit a 3-pointer with 2:40 left, Deron Williams missed on an open look, Felton stepped in front of a bad pass by Head, then Head missed the potential game-tying shot at the end. In all, the Illini missed five 3-pointers down the stretch, part of a night in which they shot 12-for-40 from long range and just 38 percent overall.