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North Carolina's Man in the Middle
April 11, 2005
Led by the indomitable Sean May, the Tar Heels held off Illinois to give Roy Williams his first NCAA title
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April 11, 2005

North Carolina's Man In The Middle

Led by the indomitable Sean May, the Tar Heels held off Illinois to give Roy Williams his first NCAA title

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Wherever was he going? Seventeen seasons, five Final Fours, three championship games, at long last an NCAA title, and Roy Williams was ... sprinting off the court? Surely one of those scrums of powder-blue joy, breaking out all over the floor following North Carolina's 75--70 defeat of Illinois in St. Louis on Monday night, held a place for him. Surely the man with the Pavlovian tear ducts could find a better way to celebrate a moment that he and most of the Tar Heel State and even a few generous-spirited Kansans had been awaiting for years. Yet there he went, disappearing into some tunnel of the Edward Jones Dome. � Turns out he had to find Illinois coach Bruce Weber to tell him he knew full well that feeling of getting so dadgum close, as Williams might say. He had to empathize when he was entitled to wallow. Had to share when others might hoard. But then, those are precisely the choices Williams had taught a motley assortment of ballplayers, most of them inherited, to make during this season of return--for the Tar Heels, to the top; for Williams himself (a native of Asheville, birthplace of Thomas Wolfe, poet laureate of going home again), to North Carolina.

When Williams wrote a series of dates on a blackboard during a team meeting last fall, he didn't realize that April 4, the day of the national championship game, doubled as Sean May's 21st birthday. "Coach, I promise you it's going to be a very special day," May said at the time. And the man Williams chased into the tunnel late Monday night knew that May was capable of making good on that pledge. Early on Sunday morning, as he broke down film at the downtown Marriott, Weber watched the Tar Heels with something close to dread. "He's a man," he said, watching May settle his haunches into the low post. "He's a beast," he said, as North Carolina's junior center muscled up another bank shot or turnaround. "If we don't stop him in the first 10 seconds of a possession, it's over."

Not that the Illini didn't try. Six-foot-ten James Augustine fouled out, and 6'10" Jack Ingram nearly did, trying to keep May from scoring the 26 points and grabbing the 10 rebounds that earned him honors as Most Outstanding Player. "The guys were telling me in the pregame meal, 'Hope you're ready to eat 'cause we're going to be feeding you all night,'" May said afterward.

And so this most memorable of NCAA tournaments, which began with a Vermont player shaking off his coach to win a game all on his own, ended with Williams having spent a championship season shaking the proverbial lapels of every last player on his team, to impress upon each that none would win a thing all on his own. In the two seasons since he left Kansas for Chapel Hill, Williams had called upon almost every resource a coach can muster. He was by turns a shrink, an enabler, a scold, a pleader, a truant officer.

A team that doesn't reliably take good shots or guard people doesn't usually win a national title. Yet the Tar Heels spent the season stitching together just enough stretches of genius to compensate for, and usually overcome, lapse after glaring lapse. "It's not as pretty as I'd want it to be," Williams said last Friday. "I'm the kind of coach who likes five passes and a dead layup." Notwithstanding that sloppiness, a range of other signs pointed to a Carolina Restoration: A freshman megatalent content in a supporting role ( Michael Jordan then; Marvin Williams now). A post player whose learning curve steepened as he shed baby fat (meet May, the new Brad Daugherty). Big men who could find each other with high-low passes in the lane (instead of James Worthy to Sam Perkins, watch May and forward Jawad Williams hook up in traffic). A blur of a sweet-shooting point guard (to a line that goes back to Kenny Smith and Phil Ford, add Raymond Felton). Even the wondrous Marvin Williams, the future lottery pick who grew up in the unlikely outpost of Bremerton, Wash., could trace his earliest hoops knowledge to his father's Dean Smith instructional video.

But the most compelling evidence of North Carolina's return to glory proved to be the team's resilience. A dozen years earlier Smith presided over a national champion that surmounted double-digit deficits in three of its last four tournament games. These Heels held off the Illini's furious comeback from a 13-point first-half deficit, but not before they'd come from nine down in the last three minutes to defeat Duke in their regular-season finale, from 13 behind to beat Clemson in the ACC tournament and from eight in arrears to overtake Michigan State 87--71 in last Saturday's national semifinals.

Their troubles in the first half against the Spartans were mostly of their own making. North Carolina turned the ball over nine times, jacked up nine errant three-pointers and reached the free throw line only once. No one demonstrated his impatience more than Felton, who, in the midst of a Michigan State run that gave the Spartans a 38--33 lead at the intermission, hoisted a brittle 25-footer with 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock. But to start the second half Felton came out with what teammate David Noel called his "infamous stare" and made sure that May got the ball on the block, where he could throw around his six feet, nine inches and 255 pounds to best effect, scoring 18 of his team-high 22 points after intermission.

Asked afterward if his players were perhaps a little too conscious of their own talent, Williams responded with a question that essentially conceded the point: "Do you have children?"

At the same time Williams took pains to point out that his players weren't the dreaded "bad kids" who prompt late-night commiseration in the bar at the coaches' hotel, only the well-meaning products of a youth-basketball culture that makes a fetish of individual play. Several Tar Heels still carried the scars of a 20-loss season bookended by home defeats to Hampton and Davidson and back-to-back humiliations at the hands of Duke. "We were young," said forward Jackie Manuel, who with Jawad Williams and guard Melvin Scott is one of the holdovers from 2001--02, "and people expected us to be the saviors. But you start to understand what it takes to become a winner."

Very gradually you start to, anyway. A year later May showed promise in the post as a freshman, and the Tar Heels won the preseason NIT. But he hurt his foot in December, and the team wound up 19--16 and ended the season in the NIT. Meanwhile the players chafed under coach Matt Doherty and told athletic director Dick Baddour as much. When the school announced Doherty's firing, the scene at the press conference represented to many Chapel Hillologists a how-low-it-could-go tableau: the players huddled together in a corner of the room, dressed casually by the standards of any college campus but slovenly by the coat-and-tie lights of the Carolina Corporation. Bill Guthridge, the longtime aide who had succeeded Smith, made sure that for the announcement of Roy Williams's hiring, the players were properly gussied up.

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