The Tar Heels (31-4) got two free throws from Raymond Felton to extend their lead to seven points with 34.5 seconds left and finally finish off the pesky Badgers (25-9), which ended the regular season ranked 20th nationally.
“This is an unbelievable feeling,” said tournament MVP Sean May, who tallied game-highs with 29 points and 12 rebounds.
“Sean May is a great player,” said UW’s Mike Wilkinson, who drew a large part of the defensive assignment on May. “He uses his body well. When UNC gets the ball down there, he’s almost unstoppable.”
Along with May on the All-Tournament team was Rashad McCants (21 points), as well as Wisconsin’s Clayton Hanson (15 points, 5-for-8 3pt.) and Alando Tucker (25 points), and Randy Foye of Villanova.
Apparently, Felton’s 17 points and seven assists were not enough to impress the voters.
Carolina will face Michigan State in the national semifinals on Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome. Tip-off is scheduled for approximately 8:40 p.m., or 30 minutes following the conclusion of the Illinois-Louisville game.
But Sunday was no cushiony coronation for the top-seeded Tar Heels. Clinging to a 74-73 lead with 2:40 left to play, Felton went inside to Marvin Williams, who was fouled in the act of shooting by Wilkinson. Williams, an 85-percent free throw shooter, sank them both to put Carolina up by three.
Then on the Badgers’ next possession, McCants blocked a three-point attempt by Hanson. More importantly, the carom wound up right in McCants’ hands to give the ball safely back to UNC. Wilkinson then fouled May, who sank both to make it 78-73 with 1:30 remaining.
Then Tucker got free for an alley-oop slam that trimmed the lead back to three. But after the two teams exchanged three pointers – one by McCants and one by Badgers’ reserve Kammron
Taylor, Wisconsin had fouls to give.
Felton’s six consecutive free throws down the stretch would seal Wisconsin’s fate.
“Sean was telling me to calm down, don’t worry about it and knock down those free throws,” Felton said.
Carolina started the game on a torrid shooting streak with May scoring the Tar Heels' first six points from point blank range. McCants was also hitting on all cylinders early seemingly scoring off the dribble with ease. The two combined for 26 first-half points, but when McCants missed shots on three straight possessions and May was held scoreless for the final 3:37 before intermission, Wisconsin took advantage with a 11-0 run as the two teams went to the locker room tied, 44-44.
“I jumped [McCants] a little bit when I took him out in the first half, and I jumped him again in the second half,” Roy Williams said. “But what you have is a mature basketball player, who took what I said. I did think it was important for everybody to play better than we did just before halftime.”
The Tar Heels, which led by 11 on two separate occasions, shot 59 percent from the floor in the first half despite missing their last five shots before the break.
“They made threes,” Roy Williams said. “They only made seven three-pointers in their last two games, but they made 11 today.”
The Badgers run continued into the start of the second half, when following a miss by May inside, Alando Tucker scored on a old-fashioned three-point play. Tucker made two more free throws to give Wisconsin its biggest lead of the game at 49-44.
But momentum quickly shifted to the Tar Heels when a bucket and a layup by May followed by a three and a reverse layup by McCants capped an 8-0 UNC run. After seeing his team’s lead disappear in just 40 seconds, Ryan was forced to call a timeout.
Then after a media timeout moments later, the Tar Heels were off and running again, scoring another six unanswered points over the next 1:46.
“They went on their run and we went on ours,” McCants said. “It’s very hard to keep us from scoring when we have our threats on the court.”
Still, the Badgers would not go away, keeping within striking distance until the game’s final minutes.
“I expected it to be tough here,” Roy Williams said. “Somebody said, ‘David almost beat Goliath last night' (referring to UNC’s 67-66 win over Villanova Friday night), but once you get to the Sweet 16, there are no Davids.”
No team has ever made as many reservations to the final weekend as Carolina. And of its NCAA record 16 appearances, UNC is headed to its seventh Final Four of the past 14 seasons.
So construction must now be complete on the UNC Basketball rebuilding project.
Surely the mountainous bump in the road, which claimed one coach, replaced three astonishing streaks, hung an 8-20 season record on the board and brought down the most consistent college program of the last 40 years, has been razed. In its place, a 21st century thruway designed to provide fans with years of smoother and more pleasurable travel.
“That’s what we talked about when we got here, helping this program come back to the top,” May said. “These emotions are indescribable.”
And just down the road is an opportunity, albeit a rigorous challenge, for Tar Heel Nation to claim to its fourth NCAA title and fifth national championship.