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CLASSIC CONTEST COMES DOWN TO MAY

You figured they would give us a game like this, a final night to remember. After all, Illinois and North Carolina were the nation's two top-ranked college basketball teams. Ever since the start of this remarkable NCAA Tournament, they had seemed to be on a collision course, headed toward a showdown in the Edward Jones Dome.

They didn't let us down, either. The Tar Heels and Illini put on an exhilarating show in Monday night's championship game, a breathtaking affair made even more dramatic by the partisan Illinois crowd, a roaring sea of orange-clad fans who had traveled across the Mississippi River to cheer on their team.

It was a classic game of ebbs and flows. North Carolina went on a 9-0 run. Illinois answered with a 12-0 run of its own. Carolina ran out to a 15-point lead and seemed in command. But anyone who had seen Illinois rally from 15 points down in the final four minutes against Arizona knew it was far from over.

So back the Illini came. And when they tied it, 70-70, on Luther Head's three-pointer with 2:39 to play, you wondered if a truly amazing finish might be in store -- a last-second game-winning shot, maybe even an overtime or two.

Then it came apart. Illinois, the top-ranked team in the land, a team that was looking to set the NCAA record with its 38th win of the season, didn't score again and lost, 75-70. The final had been billed as the talent of North Carolina against the team play of Illinois. Illinois was a terrific team, but a team with two fatal flaws.

The Illini were far too enamored with the three-point shot. They hoisted 40 of them Monday night. They were playing for a place in history, to enter the discussion about the college game's all-time greatest teams. But you do not win championships by taking 40 of your 70 shots from behind the three-point line. It's Fool's Gold, and it caught up to them.

In the end, Illinois was too guard-oriented. They had three fine guards in Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams. Williams was sensational, the best guard in the Final Four. But North Carolina had the best big man -- Sean May -- and the team with the great big man will usually prevail in a game of this magnitude.

May scored 26 points -- the same number his father, Scott, scored in Indiana's championship game triumph in 1976. Sean was 10 for 11 from the floor. Illinois had no answer for him. James Augustine, the Illini's best big man, fouled out and played only nine minutes. Time after time, May would post his 260 pounds in the lane and bull his way to easy scores.

"They played really good defense, especially on the perimeter," May said, "but they extend so much it leaves a wide gap, especially for the double-down. Our guards did a great job and I got going, and they kept feeding me."

Illinois made a predictable run midway through the second half. Williams was magnificent, scoring 11 points and handing out two assists in a six-minute stretch. But May kept responding. He made a conventional three-point play, scored again down low. When Illinois triple-teamed him, he zipped a cross-court pass to Jawad Williams for a three.

The Illini eventually drew even, but because of May they never took the lead. They used every ounce of their will and energy to stay in the game, and had nothing left for the final two minutes. When Illinois was making its run, the Heels were smart enough to ride their big man.

"I mean, he was killing them," said Carolina point guard Raymond Felton. "Why wouldn't I give it to him? Everybody was screaming, 'Get the ball inside to Sean!' I mean, it was the right thing to do."

Once Illinois tied the game at 70, the right thing would have been to get the ball inside, to force North Carolina to play post defense and draw fouls. But the Illini stayed wedded to the three-pointer. Williams missed a three. Then, after the Tar Heels went ahead by two, Head and Williams missed threes. Head threw the ball away on the next possession and missed another three with the Illini trailing, 73-70.

"We had shots," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "Open shots. But our kids played themselves to exhaustion. You shoot all those threes, maybe you don't have legs at the end. If one of those goes, now the pressure is on them. We got it to tied, but never could get it over the hump. In retrospect, maybe go inside more. We didn't get some inside looks."

Basketball is a simple game sometimes. Roy Williams finally won his first national title because he had the best big man and made sure his team got the ball inside to him. Weber let his team fall in love with the three-pointer. In the biggest game of his life, his team desperately needed an inside presence and had none.

Williams had waited a long time for a title. He won this one last spring, when he sat May down and told him he needed to get in much better shape if he wanted to be a force in tournament games. May listened. On Monday night, he had one of the most dominating performances you'll see in a championship game -- and on his 21st birthday, no less.

On Sunday night, May had watched a tape of his father's championship win in 1976. He wanted to see those Hoosiers celebrate their unbeaten season. When the buzzer sounded, he grabbed the ball and had a celebration all his own. Now he and his dad can compare notes.

"It means a lot because I tried to live up to my father's expectations," he said. "When we sit down tonight and talk about the game, I'll tell him, 'You might have had 26 points and been a Final Four MVP, but I had 10 rebounds and you didn't do that . . . "

The room broke up in laughter. "So we'll have some fun with that."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com