The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament final was a showdown of two collegiate powerhouse teams, each rich in basketball tradition.
It would have been fitting to not even play the game. Illinois sported a 37-1 record going into the game with North Carolina who had a dismal 33-4 record by comparison. The polls have had the fighting Illini at No. 1 since December, followed by the Tar Heels at either No. 2 or No. 3. It was a consensus declaration – the Illini would win.
After all, Roy Williams, North Carolina’s head coach, has more NCAA Tournament appearances than any other coach without a championship. After all those years at Kansas and four trips to the final four he has come away empty handed. In addition, the Tar Heels seniors started their college careers with a 20-loss season.
Their talent has never been in question, but their team play has.
The Illini, on the other hand, are a different matter. They were nearly perfect, losing their last game of the regular season to Ohio State on a last-second shot. Their back court talent is second to none. They play well together as a team and have shown great tenacity in winning basketball games, even rallying from huge deficits. They are well-coached, make sound offensive decisions, and they play with a very high energy level.
So why play a championship game under these conditions? Collegiate Football doesn’t do it. Let’s just call it good, give the Fighting Illini the trophy and go home. The reason is simple, It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over…and it wasn’t over yet.
The Illini were at the pinnacle of NCAA history by having the most wins in a season, only to run out of gas in the waning minutes of their final game. Their backcourt was huge in coming back against the Tar Heels, hitting a barrage of three-pointers bringing them back to within two with 20 seconds left to go. But in the end they spent all their energy in the comeback.
There was nothing left down the stretch. The North Carolina defense stonewalled the Illini over the last few minutes and when Luther Head had a chance to tie it with a great look at a three-point basket, all he could do is helplessly watch the ball fall short into the hands of North Carolina.
Led by Sean May, the Tar Heels came together as a team in this final game. There were no ball-hogging want-to-be NBA players in this game. The Tar Heels were focused and determined and pounded the ball into the front court all night long. In fact, North Carolina dramatically out scored Illinois in the paint, with May missing only one of his 11 attempts. That statistic alone was huge. In addition, the Tar Heels defense was relentless forcing the Illini to fire over 70 shots at the basket, most of which were from the perimeter (40 three pointers). It’s going to be a long night if you are shooting the ball 70 times, and over half of them are from the threepoint line. And so it proved to be for the No. 1 – ranked Illini.
When the dust settled, it was the Tar Heels 75 the Illini 70. It was over – and the nation had its champion. Coach Williams finally cried tears of joy instead of anguish as the long awaited and elusive National Championship Title settled upon his shoulders.
The seniors of North Carolina proved they could play the game at its highest level as a team. And once again we learned the value of letting a playoff or tournament decide who is really the best in the land, instead of leaving it to the “wisdom and knowledge” of all those polls.
When it was all over, it was the North Carolina Tar Heels with their No.1 fingers pointing toward heaven in thankful tribute – “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over.” Collegiate football could learn a thing or two from their basketball counterpart, but that’s another column altogether for another day.