Roy Williams' return to his alma mater resulted in the national championship two years later.
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- 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 that doggone question.
Sean May had 26 points and the Tar Heels didn't allow a basket over the final, excruciating 2 1/2 minutes Monday night to defeat Illinois 75-70, a win that finally gave Williams the national championship that was missing from his otherwise stellar 17-year career.
"I'm just so happy for myself, my family," Williams said. "These seniors ... they took me for a heck of a ride."
Freshman Marvin Williams had a tip-in with 1:26 remaining, Raymond Felton made three free throws down the stretch and the Tar Heels (33-4) won their first title since 1993, back when Dean Smith was coaching and Williams was at Kansas, in the middle of his Final Four futility.
"He is the greatest coach," Felton said. "If he retired tomorrow, I would vote for him for the Hall of Fame. He told us he would bring us a championship and we did it as a team."
Led by May's 10-for-11 shooting, Carolina took a 65-55 lead with 8:51 to go and it looked like Williams would win his 41st tournament game and first championship going away.
But Illinois (37-2) never quit. The Illini trailed by 15 early in the second half and 10 a bit later. They tied the game twice in the last 5 1/2 minutes, but when they had a chance to force overtime, Luther Head, who led the Illini with 21 points, missed a 3-pointer with 17 seconds remaining, ending their chance to set the NCAA record for wins in a season.
"Not much you can say," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "We had a tremendous year. It was just a special journey."
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.
"I'm speechless," Williams said. "I usually talk my rear end off, but right now I'm speechless."
Williams left Kansas to take over the Tar Heels two years ago, after the program 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.
"For coach to be able to say that the first team to get him a championship was the 2005 team is an honor," May said. "He'll win a few more before he's done."
After May made a short shot with 11:22 remaining 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 seven minutes to go, that the Illini finally caught up.
But Illinois could never take a lead. And after Head hit a 3-pointer with 2:40 remaining, 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.
Felton finished with 17 points and seven assists and Rashad McCants had 14 for the Tar Heels, all in the first half.
Deron Williams scored 17 and Dee Brown had 12 for the Illini, but they needed a combined 39 shots to get there -- and, in the end, the 27-for-70 shooting night just couldn't be overcome.
In the end, the Tar Heels won the matchup that was billed as Team vs. Talent -- the Tar Heels with the talent and the Illini with the team. It turned out Carolina really had both, although as this taut game showed, coaching a championship took much more than just rolling a ball onto the court.
"A lot of people said we were just talented, but not a team," May said. "But when times got tough, we banded together and came through. We showed we're not just talented. We're a team."
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