Inside Carolina spoke this week with three members of the team – Sean May, Jawad Williams and Damion Grant – about the historic season.
“First off, does it even feel like it’s been 10 years?” May said. “My body says yes, but it’s gone by fast. When you think about it, we’ve all moved on and all of us are married with kids. It’s crazy to think where we are, 10 years ago I wouldn’t have imagined it.”
“I think we all believed after we won the title, we’d go on to play 16 or 20 years in the NBA,” May continued. “It never works out how you envision it, but I think the things that have happened in my career turned me into the person I’ve become.”
No Man Left Behind
North Carolina was coming off a 19-11 campaign during Roy Williams’s first year in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels returned their entire starting lineup and added top-five freshman Marvin Williams, and point guard Quentin Thomas.
The mentality entering fall practice was simple – championship or bust.
“I have to go back to the summer heading into the season,” said Jawad Williams. “That summer we pretty much dedicated ourselves to each other. We had a meeting and talked about no man being left behind. There was a chance of all those guys (May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants) going to the NBA early. Since we were such a close group at that time, we said the best way to do it, let’s win and then everybody leaves. Everybody would leave at the same time after we won a championship.”
Each fall, UNC’s first official practice is “Late Night with Roy.” Earlier in the day, however, the team must complete a series of conditioning tests to be cleared for practice. Grant remembers these exercises as the start of the championship run.
“Our competitiveness during practice is what I remember best,” said Grant. “That started in preseason when we were doing conditioning. Everyone had a chip on their shoulder because of the second-round loss (to Texas) the year before.”
The Toughest Practice
The same night as the infamous “Malice at the Palace” mêlée between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, the Tar Heels traveled to Oakland, Calif. to face Santa Clara. It was meant to be a tune-up before the team arrived in Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.
With Felton suspended for one game by the NCAA for playing in an unsanctioned summer league, freshman Quentin Thomas started the first game of his career in his hometown.
No. 4 UNC lost 77-66.
It wasn’t the start to a potentially career-defining season for which any of the Tar Heels had hoped.
“It’s been talked about several times, but that was a tough loss,” said Grant. “We come in as a preseason favorite, on the cover of major magazines. We go out to Santa Clara; they were unranked and losing to them was tough to swallow.”
“When we went to Hawaii that first practice was probably one of the most brutal we’ve ever had,” he continued. “Coach was mad. We were running non-stop but no one was complaining. Everyone was going for it and no one was holding back. It felt like that loss pushed everyone into high gear – every sprint, every drill, all of us were going hard. No one had to say anything because we were on the same page. That’s when, for me, I realized that nobody could stop us.”
Added Jawad Williams: “When we landed in Maui, we had a meeting and Coach Williams told us, ‘as far as I’m concerned we’re not in Maui.’ It felt that way because of how we practiced. We were there for business. It was one of the toughest practices we had since I’ve been in school. We came out of that event stronger. We knew nobody could beat us, we could only beat ourselves. We vowed to not let that happen.”
Carolina scored at least 86 points in each game and won all three by 13 or more points en route to the 2004 Maui Invitational title.
Down Nine With Three Minutes Left
It’s not hyperbole to say UNC’s come-from-behind, 75-73, victory over No. 6 Duke on March 6, 2005 was the most important regular-season Tar Heel win of this century.
Sure, it helped the Tar Heels clinch a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Sure, Carolina fans love few things more than beating Duke. Sure, it gave UNC its first outright regular-season ACC title since 1993.
But the most important result of the game was a new-found confidence among the players. They now knew they could beat good teams and do it in the toughest situations – even down nine to Duke with three minutes left.
“That game was special for me because it was my last game in the Smith Center and it was probably the best game of my career,” said May, who scored 26 points and grabbed a career-high 24 rebounds.
“Coach Williams told us, ‘If you do everything I tell you to do, exactly how I tell you to do it, you guys will win this game,” May recalled of the huddle with the Tar Heels down 73-64. “You can always look into someone’s eyes and tell if they believe what is being said. I looked around in the huddle and everyone believed it. Unless you were in the huddle, it’s hard to believe that we all thought that but I promise you we did. We weren’t anxious, we weren’t nervous. Marvin (Williams) hit the “and 1” and made probably the most important free throw of his career. It was just one of those special moments.”
Prior to that Duke game, Carolina had struggled to beat its arch-nemesis.
From 2000 to the last home game of May, Manuel, Jawad Williams, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Melvin Scott, Duke had beaten the Tar Heels nine of 11 times.
And just a month before the Blue Devils beat UNC, 71-70, in a finish that saw Roy Williams’s club unable to get a shot off in the final seconds.
“We always felt we were one of the better teams in the country that whole year,” explained May. “We knew we were a good team even after (losses to) Santa Clara and Wake Forest. Beating Duke at home, especially after the way in which we lost at Duke, all those things over the course of the year, finally we realized that we could beat a good team and in clutch moments we could come up with a play to get us over the hump.”
“It reminded us that we could make important plays in tight moments,” he said. “I think that carried us down the stretch. Against Villanova and Wisconsin (in the NCAA Tournament) we made a play or two in the last couple of minutes. We made free throws and a couple of plays against Illinois and we won a national championship. All that confidence and belief started that day against Duke.”
After the game, Roy Williams allowed his players to cut down the nets in the Smith Center.
Jawad Williams refused.
“I didn’t want it,” he said. “I told Coach (Williams) I’d get mine when we won the national championship. If you looked at interviews and media stuff coming into that season, that’s all I talked about, winning the national championship. I knew there was a bigger net coming later, so I left it.”
Did He Or Didn’t He?
Despite a loss in the ACC Tournament semifinals to Georgia Tech, Carolina received a No. 1 seed in the East region for the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels easily dispatched their first two opponents, Oakland and Iowa State, by a combined 55 points.
Nearly every championship team – save Roy Williams’ 2009 title team – has a game that almost gets away from it prior to the Final Four. A game where the difference between winning and losing might actually be one play.
For May, Williams, Grant and their teammates that game was Villanova.
North Carolina boasted a dominant post attack that featured four players 6-9 or taller. Villanova was the polar opposite, a guard-laden team that spread the Tar Heels out and used its quickness advantage.
Felton was in foul trouble the entire game and his teammates struggled without their floor leader. Still, Carolina led 64-54 with 3:40 left.
A 9-2 run had the Wildcats within three, 66-63, with the ball with just 10 seconds left. Villanova guard Allan Ray drove to the basket and put up a shot that went in.
A whistle came about a second later and most thought it was a foul on North Carolina. Instead, the official called Ray for a traveling violation and the Tar Heels went on to win, 67-66.
“My heart stopped when the official blew the whistle because it was a little late,” said Grant. “At first I thought he was going to call a foul Rashad (McCants) because he definitely fouled him. All that’s going through my mind is that if we lose it’s over. There’s no ‘we can learn from this and do better next game.’ But, I can’t say whether he walked or not (laughs).
Added May: “He definitely walked. The referees don’t make mistakes, I tell people that all time (laughs).”
Said Jawad Williams: “Yes (he traveled). I’ve watched it multiple times because at first I wasn’t sure. I still run into him every now and then because he’s in Europe also. We’ve never had that discussion and I don’t think he really wants to have it.
‘Throw Sean The Ball’
Up until his junior year, May’s career at UNC had been up and down. He was hurt for a big part of his freshman season and struggled with conditioning his sophomore year. He had played well, but never to the heights he envisioned when he enrolled in the summer of 2002.
Over the final semester of his college career, his level of play rose with seemingly each game. In the NCAA tournament he had 24 points and 17 rebounds against Iowa State, 29 points and 12 rebounds against Wisconsin in the regional final, 22 points and seven rebounds in the Final Four against Michigan State, and 28 points and 10 rebounds in the national championship game against Illinois.
His best stretch of basketball, he said, came when he got in the best shape of his career and believed in himself.
“My teammates around that time started to rely on me more,” he said. “Things started to happen where we played through the post more and we were playing a certain style going into the postseason and ACC tournament. I was able to play at a high level because of the confidence in me that my teammates had.”
During the East regional final against Wisconsin, Scott showed Roy Williams and the rest of team how much he trusted May.
“Coach Williams is drawing up a play during a timeout,” May said. “Melvin stops him and says ‘Just throw Sean the ball.’ Coach kind of looked at him and said ‘OK.’ That play gave me confidence that I hadn’t had all season. I knew these guys wanted me to carry them. It kind of just kept going through the championship game.”
Enjoy Your GIfts
Three of the team’s preseason goals had been accomplished when it arrived in St. Louis for the Final Four. It had won the ACC regular-season title outright, earned a No. 1 seed and made the Final Four.
It was two wins away from giving Roy Williams his first national championship, giving UNC its first in 12 years and capping an amazing career arc for the three scholarship seniors – Manuel, Williams and Scott.
But at the annual Final Four banquet, you wouldn’t have known there was any pressure on the Carolina players.
“I just remember sitting there and we were, by far, the loosest team,” Jawad Williams explained. “All the players from the teams knew each other from AAU tournaments and going back to high school. During the banquet, they acted like they didn’t want to talk to us. We all looked at each other laughing and joking and they’re all serious not wanting to talk to us. We said they might as well enjoy these free gifts because they’re too serious and we were going to win.”
UNC ran away from Michigan State, 87-71, in the second half of the semifinal game. Jawad Williams, who had 20 points and eight rebounds against the Spartans, was excited. He was 40 minutes away from winning his final college game.
“Nobody knew, but during the ACC Tournament I had a tear in my left hip flexor,” he said. “I struggled throughout the (NCAA) Tournament to get healthy, but during the Final Four, I was healthy and ready to contribute.”
Quiet Before The Storm
On his 21st birthday, May woke up in a St. Louis hotel, 12 hours away from the biggest game of his life. His game-day tradition was to keep to himself. The mental focus isolation brought, he thought, was just as important as a player’s physical ability.
April 4, 2005, 29 years after he’d played in and won a national championship at Indiana, May’s father, Scott, gave the best advice Sean could’ve hoped for – none.
“Me and my dad have a really close relationship and we had talked many years about his team and playing in big games and how to prepare yourself,” May said. “The one thing I loved about it, he just allowed me to be. He was in the hotel and the night before I went to his room and I was there for four or five minutes and we talked about everything but basketball.”
“I had never seen the national game that my dad played in until the night before our championship game,” he continued. “Having that alone time and seeing him and what his team accomplished and the joy that it gave them, it allowed me to settle in, go out there and be calm.”
The day of the game was a little bit different for Grant. He’d injured his foot earlier in the season and wasn’t able to play for most of the year.
“I was really nervous because there was nothing that I could do during the game to help my guys,” he said. “At this point everything I could help with was what I did in practice to help Sean, Jawad and Marvin prepare.”
Jawad Williams and Grant both remembered the bus ride from the hotel to the Edward Jones Dome.
“It was so quiet,” said Grant. “It was always quiet but this was different. Everyone had their headphones on and everyone was really focused.”
Said Jawad Williams: “The night before I took a walk to the park alone and got kicked out. It was just to calm me. On the ride over, everyone was so locked in. There was nothing to be talked about. We knew what we came there for. You don’t want to make it that far and lose.”
The constant media narrative for the game was “team vs. talent,” implying Illinois played together and UNC was a collection of individuals. UNC built a 15-point lead, which was no surprise for Jawad Williams.
The two teams had played a year before in Greensboro and UNC won, 88-81. That was all the confidence he needed.
“Coach Williams asked me before the game, ‘How do you think we’re going to do against them?” said Jawad Williams. “I told him, ‘Honestly I think we’re going to blow them out.’ I said, ‘This year we’re 10-times better.’ And to be honest, halftime saved them if you asked me. If they didn’t have that, we would’ve run the score up on them because they were tired. When they got their legs back they started making shots and got back in the game.”
Illinois did come back and eventually tied the game at 65-65 with 5:15 left. The game would again be tied at 70-70 with two minutes remaining. The Illini wouldn’t score again.
Carolina inbounded the ball and Roy Williams called out the offense from the sideline on UNC’s game-winning play.
“We were in freelance and Rashad broke off a play because he had an opportunity to go baseline,” May said. “He tried a reverse and just didn’t have enough on it. The ball went into the air and Marvin and I both jumped to get it. Him being more athletic than me, he tipped it in. It was a heck of play by him, and it won us the national championship. If we don’t get that the game may have turned out different.”
After a few free throws and Illinois misses the game was over.
May grabbed the final rebound and rushed over to Roy Williams. Jawad Williams found his classmates, Scott and Manuel. Grant ran on the court.
“That was a crazy moment for us,” Jawad Williams said. “Everyone knew us as the class that ruined everything during 8-20. We talked about winning the national championship even before the season started. Everything was foreshadowing to that moment and on the court we found each other. We literally started at the bottom and rose to the top. We said a prayer together, thanking God that we came this far and stayed together, because we all thought about leaving at some point. We were praying, crying, trying to celebrate, there was just a lot going on.”
Grant added: “It’s crazy because when I ran on the court and saw Jawad, he ran and jumped into my arms. It was awesome to be embracing one of my brothers. When I saw the picture (of that moment, distributed by the Associated Press) and it called me an ‘unnamed supporter’ I was like ‘cool’ (laughs).”
May told reporters what he was going to do in advance, so Roy Williams knew what was coming.
“Sean May between the semifinals and finals saying at the press conference that his dream would be to be the first player to hug Coach Williams when he won his first national championship – that really hit me pretty hard,” the coach reflected this week on his radio show when asked about his favorite memories from the season.
“They shoot, Sean gets the rebound. I look up, it’s two seconds. I look back, Sean’s still got the rebound. I look up and it’s one second and C.B. (McGrath)’s hugging me. Then all of a sudden this big ole, smelly, sweaty guy is hugging me like crazy. I’ve got a lot of great memories but those are pretty special.”
May recounted: “The only thing I wanted to do was find Coach Williams. I ran over and gave him a big bear hug. He changed a lot about the way I approach the game when he came to Carolina. I was in better shape, learning the game better and becoming the player I knew I could be. My dad talked about the relationship he had with Coach (Bob) Knight and it meant so much for me and my teammates to get that first time for Coach Williams.”
For Coach Smith
There are two names that generally stand above all others when it comes to Carolina basketball – Dean Smith and Michael Jordan.
Moments after giving Roy Williams his first national championship, the 2004-05 team ran into the locker room to celebrate. Who was waiting for them?
Smith and Jordan.
“The thing with Coach Smith, I always had a relationship with him,” Jawad Williams said. “I met him when I was coming in as a freshman. He knew everybody in my family by name, even though he only met those people one time. Every time I would see him he’d say ‘Jawad you need to get on the glass.’ That’s how we built the relationship, constantly talking about things off the court. I remember watching the ‘One Shining Moment,’ the Carolina version with him and Jordan. You’ve got the best coach ever, the best player ever, that doesn’t happen that often.”
Though it had been eight seasons since Smith retired, the players felt the championship belonged to him as much as it did them.
“Coach Williams was our coach at that point, but it’s like we did it for Coach Smith,” said Grant. “That was the program that he built and it was an honor to be able to do that for the University of North Carolina, for the basketball program that he built up. It was an honor.”
May recalled: “All he (Smith) said was, ‘I’m so proud of you guys, enjoy the moment.’ This was the vision that Coach Smith had for the program when he retired. I’ll always cherish being able to help him see that vision.”
His First Title Team
Ten years later, despite a sea of change, some constants remain – most notably the player’s love, respect and admiration of each other and Roy Williams.
The players communicate nearly every day via social networks. Most still have permanent homes in the Chapel Hill area and often play pickup in the Smith Center during the summer.
Since that season, Williams has made two more Final Fours and won another national championship.
“We’ve played a few games, won a few games, lost a few games, it’s amazing that that was 10 years ago,” Williams said. “Heck, I guess it’s six years ago since ‘09. Heck, I’m sorta getting bored I’d like to do that again.”
But nothing will compare to his first title team, May believes.
“He may win four, five titles or whatever, but he’ll never forget that first one,” May said. “That’s the only thing going through my mind at the time we were celebrating. So much went into winning a title over so many months and years of training. I’ll always remember it.”
Photos by Jim Hawkins, Getty Images, Associated Press