The title completed the team's comeback from an 8-20 season in 2002.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- With thousands of Carolina blue-clad fans cheering in the Smith Center, Rashad McCants rested his left arm on the NCAA championship trophy and gave it a glance.
The North Carolina junior then looked up at the crowd and smiled. He didn't have to say a word.
The Tar Heels returned home Tuesday to celebrate the program's fourth national title with about 15,000 frenzied fans -- less than 24 hours after closing the season with a 75-70 win over Illinois in St. Louis.
In a festive atmosphere that included the team serenading the crowd, coach Roy Williams and his players thanked the fans for their support and talked about how good it felt to win North Carolina's first national title since 1993.
It was a title made even sweeter by the program's struggles in recent years, which included an 8-20 season in 2002 and an ugly coaching change a year later that brought Williams back to his alma mater.
"It's been a long journey; it really has," said senior Jackie Manuel, a freshman on that eight-win team coached by Matt Doherty. "But I think the one thing I can say is we're back. We're No. 1."
Thousands of fans -- many already wearing championship T-shirts -- poured into the stands and onto the arena floor before the team's flight had even landed at nearby Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The fans waited and cheered as they watched season highlights on the video boards, located high above the scoreboards reading "Carolina 75, Illinois 70."
That score sent a crowd of about 45,000 onto Franklin Street for a post-game celebration that lasted into Tuesday's early hours. But the fans hardly seemed partied out by the time the team's flight landed around 3:40 p.m.
As the fans waited patiently for the team to arrive, TV stations followed the team bus on its trip to campus.
The team arrived around 4:30 p.m. and was greeted by a roar from the crowd as it walked to the podium with junior David Noel carrying the trophy.
It was the first title for Williams, who was an assistant to Dean Smith for 10 years before spending 15 seasons at Kansas. He reminisced about how good it felt to watch the Tar Heels win the title 12 years ago, and now he finally has one of his own in just two seasons here.
"I can tell you the thrill of a lifetime -- other than my wife and two children -- was being the leader and coach of our alma mater," Williams told the crowd.
Several of the players talked of returning for a similar party next year, though it's unclear just how many of these players will be around. In addition to losing senior Manuel, Jawad Williams and Melvin Scott, coach Williams said earlier Tuesday that he expected McCants to enter this year's NBA draft.
In addition, juniors Sean May -- the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four -- and Raymond Felton, and freshman reserve Marvin Williams are weighing a possible jump to the pros.
The fans certainly were aware of that. They greeted Williams with chants of "Three more years! Three more years!" and gave a similar chant asking Felton for another year.