“In the first half, they kicked our tails,” Sean May said. “But everybody did their part…that was the difference in the game.”
What a welcome time for Jawad Williams to return to form. After scoring just nine points in his last three games, the senior power forward broke out with 20 points – 12 coming in the first half – to keep the Tar Heels in the game.
“The only thing I really went through was people trying to make excuses for me,” Williams said of his recent funk. “I never made an excuse and I never will. Tonight was a great win for us, and that’s all I really care about.”
Trailing 38-33 at halftime, Roy Williams lit a fire under his troops and they responded.
“I challenged them at halftime,” he said. “We were four down against Villanova, five was nothing if we went out and played.”
So just how incensed was the 54-year-old Tar Heel skipper?
“He got the point across,” Felton said. “Let me put it like that.”
In what was easily the best stretch of play Carolina (32-4) has enjoyed in weeks, the Tar Heels re-took the lead with six straight points and never looked back.
Early on, MSU coach Tom Izzo’s defensive strategy was indicative of what has made him one of the best coaches in the country. With three guards forming a wall to meet Raymond Felton and stop his penetration as he started UNC’s offense, and his post players collapsing on May; the Spartans forced Felton into four first half turnovers and frustrated the previously red-hot May into an uncharacteristic 2-for-8 shooting slump.
“I didn’t think it was North Carolina out there,” Roy Williams said. “We didn’t compete the way we have all year long. We didn’t rebound the ball, we didn’t dive on the floor, we didn’t take charges and we didn’t do all those little things that make a difference.”
But there was just one problem with Izzo’s “pick your poison” philosophy – Jawad Williams and Rashad McCants were left to feast offensively, combining to convert 9-of-14 shots.
Still, Michigan State (26-7) was getting free for easy dunks and layups while seemingly getting every loose ball.
When the Tar Heels got to the locker room, they were met by a furious Roy Williams.
With their fans nervously passing the time during the extended break, the Tar Heels were busy regrouping. In the second half, they started to get the ball inside more effectively to May, who responded by scoring 18 of his team-high 22 points. And as a result, it enabled Felton to maneuver and finish with 16 points, while committing just one more turnover the rest of the way.
McCants also continued to flourish, constantly beating his defender off the dribble on his way to 17 points.
Meanwhile, led by David Noel and Marvin Williams, the Tar Heels much-maligned defense held the Spartans to just 29.4 percent shooting in the second half. In doing so, Carolina set a school record with 358 steals, surpassing the mark set by the 1993 NCAA champions.
“We didn’t play very well defensively in Syracuse,” Roy Williams said. “But we had three big-time days of practice this week. The focus was going to the pit and working on the defensive drills, and we did that for three days.”
But had it not been for Jawad Williams’ re-emergence as a force to be reckoned with, UNC may not have been able to overcome the Spartans, which appeared to have figured out how to stop the Tar Heels in the opening period.
And since Williams refused to accept any credit for his input in the Tar Heels’ win, May took it on himself to heap praise on his elder teammate.
“I told him at the end of the game, ‘The reason why we won this game is because you had heart and you wouldn’t let us fail.’”
“I haven’t been that extremely worried about Jawad,” Roy Williams added. “I just want him to get healthy. When he’s healthy, he’s a big-time basketball player.”
So the stage is finally set. For the first time in 30 years, the two undisputed best teams in the country will play for the NCAA championship when top seeds UNC and Illinois (37-1) square off on Monday.
Not since UCLA defeated Kentucky in 1975 has the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 teams met in the title game.