“Years from now, when he’s won a bunch of rings, I want him to remember that it was this team that got him his first.”
So said Sean Gregory May on the eve of the 2005 Final Four. He was talking, of course, about Roy Williams and his long wait to finally win the Big One. His words seemed pretty bold at the time (Ringless Roy winning a ‘bunch?’) but time has proven him prophetic.
Younger Carolina fans may not appreciate just how hungry the Tar Heels, and Roy in particular, were for a title. It had been 12 years since the Heels had won it all. That may not seem like a lot, but when a title drought includes names like Stackhouse, Wallace, Jamison, and Carter, it seems interminable. The Matt Doherty era didn’t make the waiting any easier. But Doherty’s Disciples were now Roy’s Boys, and they were on a quest to win it for their coach. No player embraced that purpose more than Sean May.
The National Championship Game was the perfect matchup. Led by Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head, Illinois had been the top team in college basketball all year. They had run roughshod through a helpless Big Ten and their only loss to date had come at the hands of a Matt Sylvester three-pointer in the regular season finale. But UNC, with its depth, talent, and experience, was considered to be the one team that could beat the sharpshooting Illini on any given night.
On Carolina’s very first possession, the tone was set. May had Illini forward Roger Powell on him. He muscled Powell back into the lane, caught the ball in great position, shed Powell loose with his backside and laid it in easily. If you remember Roger Powell, you might recall that he was built like a tank. May brushed him aside like he was made of packing peanuts. The next trip down the floor, James Augustine drew May. Augustine lasted nine minutes of gameplay before he fouled out (traumatized Illini fans still complain about the officiating to this day).
By halftime, a dominant inside-outside attack had given Carolina a 40-27 lead. In the second half, the Illini came to life. The three-ball, elusive in the first half, returned to Williams, Brown, and Head, and Illinois came storming back into the game. Seven days earlier, Bruce Weber’s team had pulled off one of the great comebacks in tournament history when they rallied against Arizona in the Elite Eight. Everyone was thinking of that now. Carolina seemed to have tightened up and the Illini were playing loose and confident (It also didn’t help that the refs were allowing Illinois to commit illegal screens to free up shooters, to the point where the broadcast noticed it).
But Sean May, over and over again, continued to impose his will on Illinois the second half. No matter who checked him on the block, Augustine, Powell, Jack Ingram, it didn’t matter. May got what he wanted, finished through contact, ripping down offensive rebounds, making good passes out of the double team.
He finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds on 10-11 shooting. Illinois drew level twice after intermission, but they never broke ahead. That was largely due to May holding them at bay. By the time Marvin Williams and Raymond Felton delivered the winning points, Illinois’ shooting had deserted them again.
The two best games of Sean May’s career ended identically: An airballed jumper from the right side nestling into his massive hands under the basket as time expires and Carolina fans rejoice. The first of those games will appear later on this list. The second won him and his coach a title.