“These are the possessions you will replay the rest of your life. Every single handle, every dribble, every shot.”
There was just under two minutes to play and the top-ranked Fighting Illini of Illinois, they of the 37 wins and just a single loss by a single point, had just drawn level after trailing by 15 points in the second half. The orange-clad Illini crowd was at full throat, and the blue-clad Carolina crowd was watching through their fingers. Roy Williams, the coach who couldn’t win the big one, and his Tar Heels, the ragtag group of talented coach-killers, were about to collapse before the eyes of the college basketball world.
Or so the national media would have you believe. Leading up to the national title game, the narrative had been as follows: #1 Illinois were a testament to team chemistry and unselfishness. How else could a team with three star point guards coexist in such glorious fashion? #2 North Carolina were merely a blue-blooded mishmash of talented parts, the same parts that had run their previous coach Matt Doherty out of town. Roy Williams, the four-time Final Four flop, had been handed the keys to a Porsche and told merely to park it.
Such a narrative ignored the long road that the Tar Heels had traveled to college basketball glory and the hardships they had suffered along the way. It didn’t give ample credit to the masterful job Roy had done turning the team around and making the players, and all the Carolina Family, believe again. By the time those final two minutes had ticked away, however, there was no doubting or criticizing the Tar Heels any more.
When we last left the ‘05 Tar Heels on this list they had just secured the ACC Regular Season crown with an all-time victory over Duke (thanks again, Marvin). They were upset by Georgia Tech in the ACC Semifinals but still secured the #1 Seed in the East. They rolled through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament but then faced two tough games against Villanova and Wisconsin.
In the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels and the Wildcats played a close game that came down to the final seconds where, with Carolina leading by three, Allan Ray appeared to convert a bucket and one. But he received a late whistle for traveling when he pivoted and took maaaaybe three steps against Melvin Scott. UNC held on to win 67-66. In the Elite Eight, UNC got a surprising challenge from a plucky Alando Tucker-led Badgers squad that hung with them until late in the game where Carolina put it away at the foul line, winning 88-82.
In the National Semifinal, UNC played a listless first half against Michigan State, with only Jawad Williams performing as if he were in a Final Four game. The senior, who had been dealing with a hip injury since late February, scored 18 points in the first half to keep UNC afloat, trailing only 38-33 at the break. In the second half, UNC came busting out of the locker room, scoring the first six points to take the lead, and never looking back. Sean May and Raymond Felton scored 32 of their combined 38 points in the second half and UNC pummeled the Spartans in transition, scoring 54 post-halftime points and winning 87-71 to set up a showdown with the top-ranked Illini.
Bruce Weber’s team had been the feel-good story in college basketball all season long. They had announced their intent with an early season drubbing of Chris Paul’s top-ranked Wake Forest:
The terrific trio of Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head spearheaded a lethal Illini attack that was deadly from the perimeter. Williams was the playmaker and lockdown defender, Head was the primary shooter, and Brown was the quickest and most efficient. Big man James Augustine and power forward Roger Powell rounded out the starting five with their defense and rebounding. They were, however, not a deep team, with only big men reserves Jack Ingram and Nick Smith seeing the court much off the bench.
Thanks to their electric backcourt (and a woeful slate of Big Ten opponents) the Illini won their first 29 games and would have finished the regular season undefeated were it not for a Matt Sylvester game-winner that gave Ohio State the upset in the season finale. They had cruised through the tournament up until the Elite Eight, where they required a comeback for the ages against Arizona to survive and advance, coming from 15 down with 4 minutes left to send it to overtime. They easily dispatched Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals in the Semifinal to set up the anticipated matchup with UNC, the first time in two decades the teams ranked 1 and 2 met in the title game.
Everyone and their grandmother knew Carolina would try and ride a red-hot Sean May (who was celebrating his 21st birthday that night) to victory. Certainly Illinois knew it, but they couldn’t stop it. Carolina’s first bucket was May out-muscling Powell on the block and diving in for a layup. Bruce Weber quickly saw that Powell couldn’t handle May and switched Augustine on him, though this quickly backfired: Augustine picked up two quick fouls and was headed to the bench. Jack Ingram would be tasked with handling the big All-American.
Illinois, the best three-point shooting team in the nation, tried to work the ball around the perimeter to free up shots against the bigger Tar Heels, but UNC played terrific perimeter defense (a weakness of theirs at times that season) and the Illini couldn’t get it going. Meanwhile the enigmatic and treasonous Rashad McCants, so often clutch in big games and uninterested in “small” ones, was having a brilliant half, scoring both inside and on the perimeter. The two teams went back and forth in the early stages, then UNC went on a 13-2 run to close the half. A Sean May fastbreak assist (yep, you read that right) led to a McCants three to give him 14 first-half points and widen Carolina’s lead to 40-27 going into the locker room.
UNC went right back to May to start the second half, and he scored the opening bucket, just as in the first. Minutes later, he had drawn two more fouls on Augustine, who headed back to the bench. With their big man out and Carolina leading by 14, Illinois looked to be dead in the water. But then the Illini started hitting their shots. Luther Head and Dee Brown continued to fire away and Williams was getting the Illini back on track. Meanwhile Carolina was taking bad shots and were out of sync offensively, getting away from their post game. Illinois had a 10-0 run and with 12:45 left, UNC was clinging to a 52-50 lead. Then Sean May reintroduced himself.
Sean May had many great performances and moments as a Tar Heel. His 26 and 24 game against Duke in the regular season finale stands as one of the greatest games ever by a Carolina big man. Two nights earlier, he had put Michigan State away in the second half with a series of alley oop dunks and baskets through contact. But the next three minutes in the second half of the national title game were his finest in Carolina blue.
With the pro-Illinois crowd (this game was in St. Louis after all) willing their team to another dramatic comeback and the best three-point team in America heating up, May put his big hands around the game and squeezed. UNC went on a 13-5 run, with ten of their points scored by May: Four baskets, two of them through contact and with the resulting free throw. Ingram, Augustine, Powell, it didn’t matter who drew the assignment: May had his way with them. With just under nine minutes remaining, it was 65-55 Carolina and Title #4 beckoned.
But Illinois fought back again. When Augustine picked up his fifth foul (He finished 0-3 from the field, 2 boards, and five fouls in nine minutes. Woof.) Jack Ingram stepped up: The reserve hit two big jumpers, Dee Brown hitting another to trigger another run. These came with the aid of several (uncalled) illegal screens. And once again, Carolina was inexplicably going away from May and taking ill advised shots. McCants, who had been the hot hand in the first half, had a goose egg in the second and was still firing up outside shots. Dee Brown drew a foul on Felton on the break and when he knocked down two free throws, Illinois finally drew level at 65 apiece with 5:30 to go.
Felton answered with a cold-blooded contested three over Williams (“That wasn’t just beyond the arc, it was beyond the arch!” said Jim Nantz) to end the run. Williams hit a two and then May was fouled by Ingram and hit two free throws. 70-67 UNC with 4:20 to go. Both teams missed shots, then Luther Head drilled his fifth three of the game with 3:00 to go. 70 all. Marvin Williams missed, as did Deron Williams, then UNC had the ball with just under 2 minutes to play. McCants drove in from the left side but was caught up in the air under the basket. Rather than have it blocked, he lobbed it up in the air. May and Marvin both went for the tip-in. Marvin got there first: 72-70, 1:41 to go.
Illinois missed two threes on either side of the under two minute timeout, but UNC couldn’t corral the rebound either time: Ingram flew in to grab one board and May and Marvin knocked into one another and lost the ball out of bounds. On the second attempt, Ingram set such an egregious moving screen to free up Head that even the detestable Billy Packer couldn’t keep silent: ”Those are illegal screens! They’re not being called!” But it made no difference: Illinois would have yet another chance to tie or take the lead.
If you weren’t old enough at the time to remember the 2005 season, let me assure you of something: Watching the Illinois shooters get those open looks to take the lead was sheer terror. All season long they had been burying teams from deep. They had humiliated Chris Paul and Co. on national TV with a barrage of threes. They had hit clutch three after clutch three against Arizona to stage their historic comeback. That they had missed so many threes against UNC that it felt like dumb luck (though it was partly thanks to active perimeter defense). It was too much to hope for that they’d miss again.
On the next possession, Illinois wove around the top of the key trying to get a favorable switch for a shooter, then Luther Head put it on the deck. Spotting Deron Williams setting up for a corner three, he kicked it towards the wing...but Felton stepped out and intercepted it. It was Illinois’ first turnover of the half and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Illinois fouled Felton and sent him to the line with 25.8 to go. Courtesy of May’s interior assault, UNC was in the double bonus. Felton’s first shot bounced off the back iron (to the dismay of his father on the telecast) but the second was cleanly through. Illinois played for the three yet again, but Williams’ attempt bounced high off the rim and over the backboard to Felton, who grabbed it and raced upcourt. Illinois fouled with 9.9 to go as the Carolina players began to celebrate...all except Sean May, who implored them to calm down.
Felton made both free throws to clinch the game. Bruce Weber took a timeout to draw up a desperation push to the hoop, while CBS’ Jim Nantz quipped “It’s Monday night and a guy named Raymond stars for North Carolina!” This was quite the night for Nantz’s eyeroll-inducing one-liners, and a network show plug at that. Out of the timeout, Deron Williams raced upcourt with UNC showing token pressure. He kicked it out to Head, who fired up a contested corner three that fell well short. May seized it, his tenth rebound of the night, smothered it, then handed it off to Felton as time expired.
And just like that Roy was a champion at last, the 8-20 seniors had a fairy tale ending, and UNC had Banner #4. All was right in the universe. The near misses of the mid-to-late 90s and the frustration of the early 2000s had been washed away. Jim Nantz couldn’t resist: ”There is a new Dean in college basketball!” You know...that one actually sounded pretty good...
May finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds. He was 10-11 from the field and 10-11 from the line, the most efficiently dominant performance in a title game since Bill Walton’s 21 of 22 game in 1973. Lost in May’s heroics was the strong play of Felton against Illinois’ elite backcourt; he went for 17 points and 7 assists with only 2 turnovers. McCants’ 14 first-half points were his only points of the game. For Illinois, Luther Head lead the way with 21 points, but he went just 5-16 from three. Illinois as a team was 12-40 from beyond the arc.
As the confetti fell, as Sean May ran to hug his coach, and as the seniors Jackie Manuel, Jawad Williams, and Melvin Scott embraced, Jim Nantz declared “The Madness began in March, it ends in April, and it belongs to May.” You’re pushing it, Jim...but we’ll allow it. It was that good of a night.