One last game. That was all that remained for the undisputed top two teams in the nation.
This was the ultimate championship game. No BCS controversy, no coaches or press polls. Simply two highly talented basketball teams going head-to-head for the most coveted prize in college basketball.
During the days leading up to the game, I could feel the buzz grow across our campus. Each morning we were welcomed with a new U of I basketball player's face on the cover of our beloved free RedEye, and it appeared to me that the hype was getting to people. I noticed people who normally couldn't care less about the game embrace the Orange and Blue as if they had been cheering for the number-one team in the nation all season long. Dozens of away messages lined with Illinois pride popped up in the minutes before the game began. Illini fever had clearly spread north from Champaign.
Both teams made the game on the backs of their back courts. The Illini were known For their three-headed monster, Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head. However, many felt this would not be enough for them to overcome UNC, due to one thing: Sean May.
May, the Tar Heels' NBA prospect center, is a mammoth of a man who finished the tournament as the postseason leading scorer and rebounder. Everyone agreed that in order for the Amazin' Illini to emerge victorious, they would need to do something to stop this bulldozer in the paint. No one seemed to worry about the Illini's other challenge, their performance behind the three-point line.
The championship began in a peculiar fashion with UNC jumping out to a giant lead, however Illinois quickly countered with a run of its own and quickly was back in the game. It wasn't even five minutes into the contest when fans realized they were in for a classic.
Deron Williams, arguably U of I's best player, went to work on undersized Raymond Felton, North Carolina's point-guard catalyst. While Williams quickly forced Felton into foul trouble, sending him to the bench and taking some wind out of UNC's sails, May was there to right the ship. Despite May's strength, Roger Powell gave everything he could underneath to neutralize him, and he did well in collecting some critical rebounds for the Illini.
Illinois's strength this season was their transition offense, using team speed to create quick fast breaks and easy layups. Roy Williams, UNC's coach/maestro, recognized this and had his players play back on defense the whole game, eliminating Illinois's explosiveness.
Once the Illini were caught in a half-court game, it was clear they would have a hard time. Illinois refused to go inside with the ball on offense. The only thing their guards saw when they looked to pass inside was Sean May saying, "Don't even think about it."
Illinois was intimidated, and it showed. Illinois responded by turning to the three-point shot. The reliance on the trey backfired, as practically every shot Illinois put up late in the first half was a missed three. The Illini entered the half with a 5-for-19 mark from behind the arc. and a 13-point gap, only the second time all season the Illini trailed at the break.
Despite the lead and Illinois's poor shooting, the game was still guaranteed to be close. Williams and Head were too good of shooters to keep missing, so one had to figure the threes would start falling. They did.
Luther Head led a ferocious comeback for the Illini reminiscent of the previous week's miracle over Arizona. Illinois was suddenly within two points of the Heels and Illini nation was going crazy. The title game everyone had hoped for was actually living up to all the hype.
The pandemonium was cut short, however, by none other than Sean May. May scored at will in the second half, elevating his game to an undefendable level. May had sealed Illinois's fate and the game was over when he fouled out; the Tar Heels were champions.
The Illini had an unbelievable season, finishing the year with only two losses and going down fighting in a classic. But the night, the trophy, and the glory belonged to Sean May and UNC. Most importantly, basketball fans across the country experienced a great display of sport culminating in one of the most exciting events athletics has to offer.