So here we are. The last 25 years of Tar Heel basketball have brought us an embarrassment of riches the like of which no other college basketball team has enjoyed in that same time period. Ten Final Fours. Four National Championships. Countless brilliant and inspiring performances. However, no Tar Heel has played a better game since 1993 than Sean May did on Senior Night in 2005.
To fully appreciate the significance (and brilliance) of May’s signature performance, one has to consider the world that Carolina basketball confronted in 2005. Roy Williams, in his second year as head coach, had molded the Tar Heels just two years removed from the NIT into a championship contender. The seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, and Melvin Scott were playing their final home game as the No. 2 team in the nation, after ending their freshman campaigns 8-20. Carolina was back among college basketball’s elite.
However, Carolina was not back. The Roy Williams era still had unfinished business on two counts: they hadn’t won it all, and they hadn’t beaten Duke.
In Roy’s first three match-ups with Coach K and company, he had come up short and each time in agonizing fashion: the Duhon coast-to-coast, and the McCants slip in 2004. Also, just one month earlier a furious Carolina comeback ended in disaster when Raymond Felton picked up his dribble on the final play. The knock on the Heels was that they couldn’t win close games, and they couldn’t beat Duke. On March 6th, 2005, they would do both.
The 2005 Tar Heels were the most talented team in the nation. They had depth, talent, and veteran leadership at every position. Duke that year relied primarily on two players: JJ Redick and Shelden Williams. It’s the latter of these two that holds special significance in the game. While it has become popular nowadays to dismiss Shelden Williams as a draft bust and to (accurately) comment that his wife is the better basketball player (he’s married to WNBA legend Candace Parker), make no mistake about it: Shelden Williams was a BEAST in college. “The Landlord” averaged 15.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, and 3.7 bpg in 2005 on his way to being named Defensive Player of the Year. EVERYONE was scared of Shelden WIlliams.
Everyone except Sean May.
In the first matchup in Cameron, May outplayed Williams, notching 23 points and 18 rebounds in defeat. With current 3-on-3 legend Rashad McCants sidelined with a stomach bug, Carolina was going to need dominant play from May on the interior to keep pace with Duke’s perimeter game. They would get that and more.
As has become a theme in the upper rankings of this list, Carolina played terribly for much of the game. Without their primary perimeter scorer on the court, the Heels were dire shooting the ball — they finished 1-11 from beyond the arc (the only make coming from Reyshawn Terry), and didn’t fare much better from the midrange. Meanwhile, Duke got an unexpected contribution from Lee Melchionni, who drilled five threes, most of them in the second half when Duke seized control. Felton went 3-13 and committed five turnovers, Jawad Williams was 3-10, Marvin Williams 3-9. Everything seemed to add up to a Carolina defeat (the most painful of the Roy era).
Sean May, however, would not have it. Over and over again he pounded the glass, both offensively and defensively, securing extra possessions for his teammates. Again and again he challenged Williams on the block. Williams was far helpless: He had a terrific game, finishing with 25 points and six blocks, but May was better. He wreaked havoc on the interior, and kept UNC’s head above water.
However, despite his Herculean efforts, the Heels trailed by 9 with 3 minutes left following Melchionni’s fifth three. We all know what happened next. The 11-0 run. The David Noel Steal. The Marvin and-one Putback. Redick’s last three rattling out and Ewing’s air ball falling short.
However, one play that is often lost in the shuffle came at the 1:45 mark. Duke led 73-68 and Demarcus Nelson had just missed the front end of a one-and-one (Duke FIFTH straight missed free throw!). Watch from 1:30:22 (in fact, carve out an hour and a half and watch the whole thing, it’s worth it).
Felton drops off a bounce pass to May who is brilliantly by Williams. Any other player in the country would then have gathered the ball and held it, looking for an open teammate. Not May. He wrestled it right back up and finished the layup, being fouled by both Williams and Melchionni in the process. That was May’s night in a nutshell. He’s going up against a terrific player playing a terrific game, but he just wanted it more.
Sean May finished the night with 26 points and a Dean Dome record-setting 24 rebounds. 12 of his rebounds came on the offensive glass. One month later, he would record another 26 point game, this time to win the National Championship. The seeds of that title, however, began to sprout somewhere during that 11-0 comeback. When the final buzzer sounded and Carolina fans charged onto the court, there wasn’t a single one of the 22,125 fans in attendance who didn’t believe that Roy Williams, Sean May, and the 2005 Tar Heels weren’t going all the way.