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The Wake-Up Call
Julia Morrill
April 13, 2005
By outlasting two scrappy opponents, UNC gained its first Final Four berth since 1998
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April 13, 2005

The Wake-up Call

By outlasting two scrappy opponents, UNC gained its first Final Four berth since 1998

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Foye 36 9-21 5-7 3 2 5 28
Nardi 32 2-8 1-2 1 1 5 6
Lowry 29 7-10 3-5 7 3 2 18
Ray 34 2-14 2-2 3 1 2 7
Fraser 26 1-4 1-3 6 0 3 3
Charles 0+ 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0
Dunleavy 0+ 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0
Austin 7 0-1 0-0 4 0 1 0
Sheridan 36 2-3 0-0 5 0 3 4
Totals 200 23-61 12-19 33 7 21 66

It should come as no surprise that North Carolina often plays inspired basketball. Before every game coach Roy Williams brings the Tar Heels together in the locker room, where they huddle, take a knee and say the Lord's Prayer as a group. Afterward, Williams asks the team to take a moment and reflect on what they just said. "We ask God to step out on the court with us and bring us strength in our battle," says junior forward David Noel. "Then we break it down and get ready to play."

In the Syracuse Regional, North Carolina's prayers were answered. After sailing through the first and second rounds, in which they trounced Oakland and Iowa State by 28 and 27 points respectively, the Tar Heels faced their first challenges of the tournament at the Carrier Dome.

First, in the regional semifinal against Villanova, heavily favored North Carolina learned quickly that the game wasn't going to be a cakewalk when the Wildcats came out attacking and seized an early 21-9 lead. Not used to having an opponent dictate the tempo, the Tar Heels were visibly rattled and uncharacteristically began to turn the ball over. In the opening minutes junior point guard Raymond Felton and senior forward Jawad Williams threw the ball away, and as a team North Carolina committed eight turnovers in the first half. At one point, with 6:23 remaining, the Tar Heels fell behind 30-19. They cut Villanova's lead to four, 33-29, at the half. The No. 5-seeded Wildcats were playing so well against an overwhelming favorite that it brought flashbacks of Villanova's epic upset of Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA championship game. "We were more casual and careless than we needed to be," said Roy Williams after the game. "Their team was at an emotional and mental high and a level that we were not at all."

When Williams entered the locker room he was livid, and instead of appealing to his players' spirituality as he had before the game, he challenged their pride. His final message was simple and to the point: Find a way to win.

The Tar Heels heard their coach loud and clear, and within the first minutes of the second half Felton and junior guard Rashad McCants responded by draining a pair of three-pointers that tied the game at 35. Having regained the momentum, it seemed as if North Carolina would take control of the game, but with 2:13 remaining, Felton fouled out. "He is that missing link, he makes this team," says junior Sean May of Felton. "You take him out, and the pieces just fall apart. We need him at all times."

With Felton gone, the Tar Heels lost their focus and began to crumble. A 10-point lead shrank to just a 64-62 advantage after a Randy Foye free throw with 40 seconds to play. North Carolina had appeared to have fought off the scrappy Wildcats after McCants hit six clutch free throws and freshman forward Marvin Williams connected on a huge three-pointer down the stretch to increase the Tar Heels' lead to 64-54. But Villanova refused to go quietly. With the Wildcats trailing 66-63 with nine seconds left, guard Allen Ray drove to the basket, beat his defender and hit a shot as the whistle blew. Although it appeared to many that a foul had been called and that Ray would have a chance to tie the game with a free throw, the referee charged Ray with a traveling violation and waved off the basket. The decision ended Villanova's Cinderella story, and North Carolina survived with a 67-66 victory to advance to the Elite Eight. It was a huge wake-up call for the Tar Heels, who were forced to sweat for the first time in the tournament. "We showed our toughness," said Jawad Williams.

North Carolina would need that toughness two nights later against Wisconsin in the regional final. The Badgers tried to push the ball and attack the Tar Heels instead of running the offense at their typically slow, deliberate pace. Led by crowd favorite Clayton Hanson, a former walk-on who drained five three-pointers, and the athletic sophomore Alando Tucker, who had a team-high 25 points, Wisconsin kept the score close and played to a 44-all tie at the half.

Almost three minutes into the second half, the Badgers took their first lead of the regional final, 49-47, on a pair of Tucker free throws. But just in time McCants and Felton came through for the Tar Heels. McCants nailed a huge three-pointer from the left elbow, and on the next possession he made a beautiful baseline move and laid it in. In a little more than a minute McCants scored five consecutive points to give the Tar Heels a 52-49 lead. Even though Felton had an off day shooting (he was 1 of 5 from behind the arc), he still scored 17 points and had 7 assists. After the Badgers pulled within one point on a jumper by Mike Wilkinson with less than four minutes left to play, Felton showed his mental toughness by going 6 for 6 from the free throw line in the final minute of the game, securing the 88-82 win for North Carolina.

May, North Carolina's 6' 9", 255-pound center, led all scorers with 29 points and 12 rebounds. The son of Scott May (player of the year when Indiana went 32-0 and won the national championship in 1976), Sean made 13 field goals, the most by a Tar Heel in the NCAA tournament since J.R. Reid had 15 in 1987 against Notre Dame. In the highly anticipated matchup with the Badgers' 6' 8" forward Wilkinson, May dominated from the start. He posted Wilkinson up, hit short jumpers and even nailed one shot just inside the top of the three-point line. Not surprisingly, May was named the Syracuse Regional's most outstanding player. "He uses his body so well," said Wilkinson. "He was almost unstoppable and played amazingly all over the floor."

When the buzzer sounded and North Carolina advanced to its first Final Four since 1998, McCants held up four fingers in the air. Felton immediately threw on the Final Four T-shirt and hat. May was overwhelmed. After he cut down a piece of the net, he tucked it behind his ear, walked away from the celebration and sat on the scorer's table. Then May put his head in his hands and began to cry. When he looked up and saw his teammates celebrating, he tried to reflect on what they accomplished but had a hard time putting it into words. So he settled for this: "It's just incredible," he said.

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