Thad: Championship 'Team'

It's getting to be a tradition: on those once-a-decade or so occasions when North Carolina wins the NCAA Tournament, the unbridled joy of witnessing the ultimate college basketball achievement is mixed with the exquisite pleasure of watching a well-played, classic basketball game whose outcome remained in doubt until the final possessions.

None of this schlepping past clearly inferior team stuff to win a comfortable championship in snoozers that only partisan diehards would ever watch on tape; in 1957, 1982, 1993, and now 2005, the Tar Heels have had to produce truly memorable performances to defeat outstanding opponents.

The downside, of course, is the tension involved for fans while the game is actually being played. I'll be honest -- right now, four hours after the final buzzer, I can't remember (much less analyze) half the stuff that happened in this incredible game. Off the top of my head I remember Rashad McCants scoring a bunch of points in the first half, Sean May utterly dominating the paint in the second half, Raymond Felton hitting a huge three and then some foul shots in the end game, and Marvin Williams doing what seemed impossible a month ago, making that go-ahead shot he hit against Duke merely the second most important basket of his career.

I also seem to recall Illinois hoisting a lot of shots from the three-point line, making way too many of them in the second half, but coming up empty in the tense final minute. Other than that, it's all a blur at the moment -- I watched this game with nearly 10,000 others in the Smith Center, strictly as a fan.

What's not a blur is the sense of collective anxiety that crowd felt after Illinois rallied to tie the game at 65 and then again at 70. The party mood of the early second half didn't last long -- Illinois is much too good a team to go so quietly -- but most Tar Heel partisans would have thought this team had weathered the storm after Carolina built the lead back out to 65-55 with just under nine minutes and drew the fifth foul on James Augustine moments later. Instead, Illinois crawled back in the game, drawing Felton to the brink of a catastrophic foul disqualification in the process. When Marvin Williams' questionable jump shot coming out of a timeout with two minutes to play misfired, giving the Illini the ball with the score tied, a truly staggering loss for the Tar Heels seemed like a real possibility.

But perhaps fittingly, what won the game for Carolina in the final three minutes was not a long McCants jumper or any other offensive exploit, but defense. Illinois lived for quite a long time in the second half by the three, but in the end they died by it, coming up empty on all five of their attempts in the final three minutes. (There's a good case to be made that something in college basketball has gone badly awry when a team finds it necessary to hoist 40 3-point shots in a championship game, but that's another story.) Probably the best look of that bunch was Luther Head's potential game-tying shot with 16 seconds to go, but Head simply missed.

One might be tempted to look at those final Illini possessions and say, "Gee, Carolina was lucky they didn't hit any of those shots," but there's another way to look at it: that Illinois had absolutely nothing reliable going toward the basket in this game, nothing that might have generated a foul or created opportunities for easy stick-backs.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, Rashad McCants' drive to the hoop with just over a minute to play didn't create a very good a shot, but it did create room for Marvin Williams to pick up a classic garbage bucket. That's the kind of thing that can happen when you take the ball to the hoop; count this game as a whole as a (narrow) victory for the traditional notion of playing the game from the inside out.

True, but all those people didn't rush the court area in the Smith Center or light bonfires on Franklin Street Monday night because of the triumph of an abstract basketball concept. Words cannot do justice to the experience of seeing this group of players and this coaching staff fulfill their dreams and the experience of seeing this program return to the very top so soon after being in tatters -- only hugs, tears, a perhaps a random whoop or two can do that.

There are a thousand statistics one could cite to illustrate the greatness of this Carolina team. My favorite, however, is this: four of Carolina's eight regular players averaged less points in 2004-05 than a year ago (Melvin Scott, David Noel, Jackie Manuel, Rashad McCants); two other players, Jawad Williams and Raymond Felton, attempted substantially fewer field goals per game this year than in 2002-03. You might not think that a team averaging 88 points a game would require so many players to sacrifice their own offensive stats, but that's how it played out this year. In basketball terms, the trade off was reducing lower percentage outside shots by the aforementioned players and increasing high percentage shots inside and free throw trips for Sean May and newcomer Marvin Williams, the kinds of shots that powered UNC to the lead in this game and ultimately put the Tar Heels over the top.

Teams in which multiple guys are able to set aside personal glory and yet remain valued, reliable contributors don't deserve to be labeled selfish, lacking in chemistry, or any other of the inaccurate media characterizations that have been directed at this North Carolina team over the course of the season. Such teams should instead be properly recognized as mature, well-coached, and cohesive.

That's exactly what this team was and is.

They're one more thing, too: national champions.

Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at For an archive of some of Thad's best articles over the past decade, head to the Thad Williamson Archive. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)

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