“Needless to say, I feel as fortunate as we can possibly feel,” Roy Williams said following the game. “It was a hairy game there at the end.”
When Melvin Scott hit two free throws with 29 seconds remaining to make it a two-possession game with UNC leading 66-62, it appeared the outcome was sealed. However, Randy Foye would get fouled by Jackie Manuel on the Wildcats’ next possession and go to the line shooting two with 18 seconds left to play.
Foye made the first to make it a three-point game and Will Sheridan rebounded his missed second attempt. Villanova coach Jay Wright then used his final timeout to set up a potential game-tying play with :09 showing on the clock.
What happened next will be disputed among Villanova and Carolina fans for many years to come. After the Wildcats inbounded the ball, guard Allan Ray drove the lane and banked in a runner as the whistle blew. But just as it looked though he might have been fouled by McCants and would get a chance to tie the score at the free throw line, the referee signalled Ray had traveled.
“On the play, (CBS commentator) Bill Raftery told me that (Ray) clearly did walk,” Roy Williams said.
“I knew I didn’t foul him,” added McCants. “I felt like when he drove he wasn’t expecting anybody to be there. So I just wanted to make a defensive rotation, without a foul, and just make him be as surprised as possible.”
However, Wright and Ray saw things differently.
“I didn’t think he traveled but it doesn’t matter,” Wright said. “There were probably other calls during the game where we got a break.”
Still, even after McCants’ free throw, Villanova quickly got a three from Kyle Lowry. No problem, there were only two seconds left and all Sean May had to do was get the ball inbounds, right? But on his first attempt, he threw an errant pass into Marvin Williams which was nearly intercepted by Ray right under the Wildcats’ basket.
“I was reading Sean May’s eyes while he was taking the ball out,” Ray said. “It was almost down to like four seconds on the five-count, and he lobbed up the pass in the end, and I kind of anticipated but I didn’t really get any hands on it.”
No doubt many long-time Tar Heel fans breathed a sigh of relief while flashing back to March 1, 1989, when Georgia Tech’s Dennis Scott stole an inbounds pass by Scott Williams and nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer, turning what should have been a sure Carolina win into a 76-74 loss in Atlanta.
But the Tar Heels (30-4), who recorded their seventh all-time 30-win season and first since 1997-98, did survive and escape victorious as bottles and other debris were hurled to playing floor by angry Villanova fans. And thus, UNC carries the sole remaining torch for the ACC into the Syracuse Regional final versus No. 6-seed Wisconsin (25-8), 65-56 winners over N.C. State. Carolina’s quest for a record 16th Final Four appearance is scheduled to tip-off Sunday at 2:40 p.m.
The Tar Heels and Badgers have never met on the hardwood.
McCants led four UNC players in double figures. Marvin Williams added 16, converting 6-for-6 from the charity stripe and nailing a huge three-pointer late in the game. Sean May, who can become only the 12th Tar Heel all-time to average a double-double for the season, scored 14 points to go with 10 rebounds. And Felton also recorded an uncharacteristic double-double – at least for him – with 11 points and 11 boards.
Foye paced the Wildcats with a game-high 28 points, including 5-of-12 from three-point range. Lowry also kicked in 18 points in the losing cause.
“I just think this team has great heart,” Wright said. “I think our guys really dug down deep and that’s something we talk about all the time.”
As loose as Villanova started the game, with nothing to lose and everything to prove, Carolina came out tight as drum.
Eerily similar to the collegiate career-ending NCAA shooting troubles suffered by Michael Jordan, Rick Fox and Donald Williams; Rashad McCants went 1-for-6 from the floor in the first half, including 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. His first basket didn’t come until 6:29 mark of the first half.
But Villanova, which led by as many 12 points, closed out the last 6:23 of the opening stanza without a field goal. And while the Tar Heels didn’t exactly make haste during the Wildcats’ drought, threes from Felton and Marvin Williams helped them to the locker room down by just four points, as close as they had been since the 15:01 mark.
Truth be told, UNC was fortunate to still be in the game at that point.
“We were really lucky we were only down four,” Roy Williams said.
Trailing 33-29, Carolina had just suffered through its lowest first half scoring output since being tied 27-27 at intermission in Clemson earlier in the year.
Yet Villanova continued to struggle throughout the second half, shooting just 38 percent for the game, while Carolina converted 42 percent of its shots on the night.
The Tar Heels also won the battle of the boards, grabbing 42 rebounds to the Wildcats’ 33.
But Villanova also forced UNC into 17 turnovers, while committing just nine of its own.
Other than the clutch play of Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams down the stretch, the ability of Scott to cover for the foul-plagued Felton was key.
When Felton picked up his fourth foul with 8:26 still to play and Carolina clinging to a 50-45 advantage, Roy Williams initially opted for freshman Quentin Thomas, who didn’t play at all in the first half. But 14 seconds and a Thomas charge later, Williams summoned the veteran Scott, who played point guard earlier in his career.
“Melvin did a tremendous job,” Felton said. “He stepped up to the plate, got the job done and knocked down big free throws. He took care of the ball down the stretch.”
A popular school of thought says it’s good to survive a scare during an NCAA title run. That certainly has been the case for Carolina. In each of their three previous NCAA championships, the Tar Heels were severely challenged and came close to elimination in one stop on the way.
The 1957 team survived three overtimes against Johnny Green and Michigan State before going on to defeat Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas in the final – also in three overtimes. UNC barely got by James Madison in its opening game of the 1982 tourney, before knocking off Patrick Ewing and Georgetown for the title. And Cincinnati with Nick Van Exel pushed the 1993 Tar Heels to overtime in the regional final before they went on to defeat Michigan’s Fab Five for Dean Smith’s second championship.
It’s still too early to determine whether Carolina will cut down the nets in St. Louis a week from Monday. But if that does come to pass, its Sweet 16 scare at the hands of Villanova will mark this year’s version of the preceding legacy.
“It’s all about finding a way to win,” May said. “We did that and we’re moving on.”