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CAROLINA IN BLUE HEAVEN
WILLIAMS FINALLY GETS ELUSIVE TITLE

North Carolina coach Roy Williams won't have to listen to all those questions about his near-misses anymore. After 19 seasons of trying and several excruciating close calls, he finally got to climb the ladder, cut down the nets and see what it feels like to be at the top of the college basketball world.

"I'm really not a better coach than I was about three hours ago but I surely thank these youngsters," Williams said Monday night after the Tar Heels held off Illinois, 75-70, in a scintillating climax to the NCAA Tournament in the Edward Jones Dome. "It's very pleasant now that next year you all will be talking about how many holes-in-one I've had or something like that."

Williams was smiling widely. On many similar nights at interview podiums around the country, he's been crying his eyes out. He shed a few tears after this one, too, but they never felt so good.

The last of Illinois' Final Four-record 40 three-pointers, an airball by Luther Head, bounded away as the clock ticked down. Junior Sean May grabbed the ball and Williams took off his glasses and wiped his eyes and the buzzer sounded. The 6-foot-9, 260-pound May -- named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after scoring 26 points -- made a beeline for his coach and put him in a bearhug by the Carolina bench.

"He's running at me and I just wanted to hug that big rascal as long as I could hug him," Williams said. "These two rascals sitting beside me (May and point guard Raymond Felton) and a few other ones in that locker room have given me memories that will be with me forever."

"He is the greatest coach. If he retired tomorrow, I would vote for him for the Hall of Fame," said Felton (17 points, seven assists). "He told us he would bring us a championship and we did it as a team."

The Tar Heels (33-4) won their first championship since 1993 and denied Illinois (37-2) the first title in its 100-year history and an NCAA-record 38th victory. But it wasn't easy.

Carolina had a 40-27 halftime lead and twice led by 15 early in the second half. But boosted by a huge majority of orange-clad fans in the crowd of 47,262, the Illini forged a huge comeback. Had it produced a victory, it would have been the biggest in championship game history.

Illinois used a 10-0 run to tie the game, 65-65, on Dee Brown's two free throws with 5:34 left and pulled even again at 70-70, on Head's three-pointer with 2:39 left. But the Illini didn't score again.

Deron Williams missed a three-pointer that could have given the Illini the lead and Carolina freshman Marvin Williams tipped in a Rashad McCants miss with 1:27 left to put the Tar Heels up, 72-70.

Illinois missed two more treys that could have produced a lead and Felton then made the game's key play, stealing a Head pass intended for Brown to the left of the key.

"I thought I saw somebody open who wasn't open," said Head.

Felton was fouled and made 1 of 2 free throws with 25.8 seconds left. Head missed again with 16 seconds left and May tipped the game's clinching rebound to Felton, who canned two clinching free throws with 9.9 seconds to go.

Playing on his 21st birthday, May scored 26 points to equal the total his father, Scott, put up for Indiana in the 1976 championship game win over Michigan that allowed the Hoosiers to finish 32-0. Both Mays earned MOP honors.

Sean May's 10-of-11 night from the field was the second-best in championship game history, surpassed only by Bill Walton's 21-for-22 night against Memphis in 1973 -- in a game played in the old St. Louis Arena. May wasn't taking any accolades on this night. It was all about Roy Williams getting a title for his alma mater.

"When you talk about some of the great coaches out there who have won championships, you have to say Coach Williams because he's done it all," May said. "This is the greatest birthday for me but I'm so excited for Coach. He finally got his game."

"He's tremendous for the business, tremendous for the game," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "One of the good guys in the business. I'm very happy for him. I have always wanted him to win a national championship but obviously not tonight. But he's somebody to cheer for."

In the immediate aftermath of the game, Roy Williams went into the stands to hug his wife and children. His high school coach, Buddy Baldwin, stood nearby with tears streaming down his face.

When he retreated to the locker room, he hugged seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott, who had endured an 8-20 season three years ago as freshmen. Then he brought in his mentor, legendary Carolina coach Dean Smith, and Michael Jordan.

"I grabbed them and said, 'These guys and (former Tar Heel star) Phil Ford and a lot of other people made North Carolina basketball'," Roy Williams said. " 'But you guys are going to be a huge part of it for the rest of your lives.' "

This was Williams' fifth trip to the Final Four and his third trip to the final. He finally won one because the Tar Heels -- pegged as more talented but less of a team than Illinois -- played together so well at both ends of the floor.

North Carolina hit 27 of 52 shots, including 9 of 16 three-pointers. Defensively, the Heels held Illinois to 27 of 70 overall and 12 of 40 beyond the arc. Head led Illinois with 21 points but was just 8 of 21 from the field and 5 of 16 from downtown.

Carolina used runs of 9-0, 7-0 and 8-0 to build its first-half lead. Then the Tar Heels scored five straight points when it counted the most and that allowed their emotional coach to let the tears flow again.

"When I have been so emotional after the losses, it's because I felt like I let these kids down," Roy Williams said. "Rightly or wrongly, I feel like there's always something I could have done better."

Not Monday. This will simply be remembered as the night Roy Williams became a champion.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com