From out of nowhere, like a powder blue-and-white Humvee, North Carolina center Sean May rambled into the lane for a layup looking as if nothing in his way could stop him.
At times Monday night, it seemed like nothing could.
May took a first-half pass from Raymond Felton and finished the fast break for two of his 26 points in the dominant effort of North Carolina’s 75-70 victory over Illinois in the NCAA final at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
A few minutes after that show of force and grace, May blocked Jack Ingram’s shot, picked up the loose ball, and again led the Carolina fast break down the court, this time as he dribbled.
May day, May day, indeed.
The Illini never found enough help to stop the Carolina center, but never surrendered either as they relied on their guts to offset May’s advantage in muscle.
Whether it was starting or finishing the fast break, finding the open man or grabbing the key rebound, May more than any other player ensured that his father, Scott, would not be the only family member with a national championship ring.
Illinois refused to go away, but the 6-foot-9-inch, 260-pound May did not budge, either, scoring 16 points in the first 11 minutes of the second half.
Illinois opened the game having Roger Powell guarding May, switched to James Ingram, went back to Powell, and let James Augustine have his turn. They even tried double-teaming him, but the extra help bothered May like a mosquito bugs an elephant.
Augustine fouled out, and Ingram had four. Weber might have been better off borrowing one of football coach Ron Zook’s tight ends.
May clearly was the biggest factor in a classic championship game, but not the only one in a matchup that lived up to its No. 1-vs.-No. 2 billing.
1 The Illini had no match for May.
The physical resemblance to dad Scott, a member of Indiana’s 1976 national champs, always has been obvious. But against Illinois, Sean May looked more like Charles Barkley in his prime. His girth prevented Illinois’ smaller, leaner bodies from moving him off the block, and his soft touch gave every shot a chance. May’s three-point play with 12:54 left gave Carolina a five-point cushion, 55-50, and restored a measure of confidence after the Illini started to stage a sequel to the Miracle at Rosemont. How much did North Carolina need him? As May rested on the bench for the stretch run, Illinois cut a seven-point lead to four with 6:51 left. Had the Tar Heels located him in the blocks more down the stretch, the game likely would not have come down to the final minute.
2 Illinois used bad judgment in its shot selection to fall behind early.
On a telling sequence in the first half, Dee Brown stole the ball and began a three-on-one fast break. But instead of ending the way it usually ends_with Brown zipping by everybody for an easy layup_he dished to Luther Head, who retreated behind the three-point arc. Head missed the shot, and Illinois missed an opportunity. Williams and Roger Powell also took shots in the decisive first half that were not necessarily bad shots until they hesitated in taking them. If any team can attest to what type of impact such an extended perimeter defense can have on a game, it is Illinois_except this time, the Illini were feeling what their opponents felt all season. Discombobulated.
3 The Illini failed to penetrate to draw defenders and kick out passes to set up open three-point shots.
Carolina’s quickness matched or exceeded Illinois’, and that was evident by how quickly guards Raymond Felton and Jackie Manuel cut off driving angles attempted by Williams, Brown and Head. Illinois attacked mostly from the baseline, and without the middle of North Carolina’s defense becoming soft, the Illini got fewer open looks from three-point range usually created by dribble penetration. Nothing illustrated that better than Illinois shooting a lousy 27 percent from the field in the first half, including just 5 of 19 from three-point range. Not until the second half, when desperation kicked in again, did Illinois adjust to Carolina’s quickness.
4 Illinois needed James Augustine to contribute more offensively than he did.
Even before Augustine picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench with 18:50 left in the second half, Illinois missed him. He looked overmatched against a North Carolina interior whose length and quickness made him seem slow and methodical in comparison. A missed jumper that clanked off the rim at the start of the second half, the kind of shot that was automatic for Augustine at the beginning of the tournament, showed how out of sync he felt in the biggest game of the year. A scoreless Augustine shrugged after he walked to the bench after fouling out, his frustration evident.
5 The Illini looked intimidated and lost their poise during the decisive first half.
With Illinois down 10 in the first half but with a chance to get back into the game, Head made an unforced error by throwing the ball over Williams’ head on a routine pass. Near the end of the first half, the Illini let the shot clock expire during a key possession that might have given them momentum heading into the locker room. Whether it was the sharper edge Carolina brought into the game or the burden of being No. 1 finally overcoming them, the Illini wore that deer-in-the-headlights look on too many possessions. By the time they regained their swagger, the hole that had been dug was too deep.
Posted to the web by Chris Gentile