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Monday night's defeat of Michigan, on the other hand, seemed at first blush to be the work not of any sentient hand, but of déjà voodoo. Then again, maybe it wasn't; maybe North Carolina caused Webber's gaffe. Early in the second half, in what seemed to be a meaningless incident at the time, Phelps and Lynch sandwiched the Wolverines' Jalen Rose, denying him a simple inbounds pass from teammate Juwan Howard. To avoid a five-second violation, Howard had to burn a timeout—the timeout that Webber will forever wish had been there to call at the end.
The title game lurched strangely to-and-fro, with numerous lead changes that weren't swings of one or two points, but great tidal ebbs. North Carolina by five. Michigan by 10. Then the Tar Heels back up by eight. Then, with 4:31 left, the Wolverines led by four. That's when Williams unspooled his fifth and final three-pointer (5 for 7 in the semis followed by 5 for 7 in the final; some systems analyst—sorry, Dean—must have fit him with a powder-blue silicon chip).
The upperclassmen took over from there. Phelps, after a block by Lynch, sailed in for the layup that pushed North Carolina ahead by a point. Lynch himself then knocked in a short turnaround jumper to put the Tar Heels up by three. Rose then fumbled the ball in traffic, and Williams intercepted, leading to a thunderous dunk by Montross. When Ray Jackson tossed in a jumper, Michigan called timeout, trailing 72-69. Forty-six seconds remained. In the huddle the coaches reminded the Wolverines that they had no timeouts left. "We thought we mentioned it," head coach Steve Fisher said later. "Apparently we didn't make the point specific enough."
Reese made a gift of the ball to the Wolverines by stepping over the sideline while receiving the ensuing inbounds pass, and Webber put back another errant three-pointer by Rose. Thus when Sullivan stepped to the line with 20 seconds to play, the Tar Heels led by only one point, 72-71. "This is for the national championship, baby," said Michigan's Rob Pelinka to Sullivan as he sighted the first of a one-and-one. The shot dropped through.
The second, however, kicked off to the left, where Webber picked it clean, just in front of the North Carolina bench. As the rest of the players retreated downcourt, Webber pivoted, and then clearly dragged his pivot foot before dribbling. Every last Tar Heel player, coach and team manager leaped high in protest when no whistle sounded. None could have known that Webber would soon make amends for the referees' oversight.
Phelps and Lynch dogged Webber up the sideline, and with 11 seconds remaining he covered up, bringing his hands together, perpendicular to each other and throwing the familiar glance at an official. Even before the technical was called, the Tar Heel bench erupted again, for everyone on it knew the Wolverines had already spent their last timeout and the title was now Carolina's. "Why did it happen?" Fisher would say. "How did it happen? Sometimes you get in the heat of the moment and things happen that you just say, 'It can't happen.'" As Williams knocked down both technical shots, and two more free throws after Michigan fouled on the next possession, somewhere Fred Brown must have been laughing.
The Wolverines had been lionhearts in beating Kentucky 81-78 in overtime to reach the title game. They sank their foul shots, played floor-slapping defense and scrapped back after trailing by four in the extra period. All in all, throughout this tournament, they did more than any team should be obliged to do to repudiate the poisonous lies about "underachievement" that had lately achieved the status of conventional wisdom. "It's a shame that Michigan will probably get some new label for losing this game," said Sullivan. "They came this close to winning two titles and being labeled a dynasty."
Deano, too, came to Webber's defense. "I don't think that timeout necessarily cost Michigan the game," he said. "We only had three team fouls at that point, and we were going to keep fouling them to use up the clock." As usual Smith had every angle covered, every possible trump card ready to play.
The coach can deny it all he wants, but there are certainly many constituent systems to whatever it is North Carolina does. There is an honor system: If you're dragging, you flash a clenched fist, the "tired signal," and the coach will take you out. But because you have credited the team with your honesty, the team rewards you, letting you return to the game whenever you're ready; Smith merely tells you whom to replace.
There's a buddy system, too. Each Tar Heel is paired with another. When Williams gives the tired signal, Rödl usually enters the lineup. When Reese flashes the sign, Sullivan fills in. When Montross wants out, Salvadori is sprinting to the scorer's table.