The shots didn't fall. It came down to that for Illinois. North Carolina was just too good to beat if everything wasn't working. A lot was working for Illinois, but the shots didn't fall. Not enough of them, anyway.
Of course the Illini couldn't stop Sean May. But we knew they wouldn't be able to stop North Carolina's wide-body center, who took over the game for a stretch in the second half. Of course the Illini couldn't keep Raymond Felton from making big plays. But we knew they wouldn't be able to keep the sensational point guard from making big plays.
As long as the shots went down, Illinois would be OK. Those 3-pointers that Luther Head, Deron Williams, Dee Brown and, lately, even Roger Powell Jr. rain down on opponents can solve a lot of problems.
But only if they go in. On Monday night, they didn't go in, and North Carolina won a thriller, taking the NCAA championship with a 75-70 win in what was essentially a road game, the St. Louis crowd squarely behind Illinois.
In the first half, Illinois, which got this far with its defense and with a motion offense that featured electric passing complemented by the long-range shooting, jacked up threes with abandon and no conscience. Six different players flung up 19 shots from beyond the arc, five of them going in. Overall, Illinois shot 27 percent in the first half.
But for all that, the Illini were hanging close. When Ingram made a pair of free throws with just under five minutes left, North Carolina led only 27-25. May hadn't taken control yet. He scored Carolina's first points, but didn't take another shot for six minutes.
North Carolina closed the half on a 13-2 run behind Rashad McCants, who proved that Deron Williams, stopper of Salim Stoudamire and Francisco Garcia in the last two games, can't stop everyone every night. McCants scored seven of his game-high 14 first-half points during the closing run, which also featured some uncharacteristic sloppiness from Illinois. Turnovers, shot-clock violations, poor shot selection.
When it was over, North Carolina's lead was 40-29.
In the second half the Tar Heels began getting the ball inside to May. Within two minutes he'd made a couple of shots and helped Illinois forward James Augustine to the bench with his third and fourth fouls. The lead stretched to 15.
And that's when the shots started falling for Illinois.
Brown hit a three. Head hit one, then another. North Carolina suddenly turned sloppy, flinging up ill-advised shots early in possessions. Williams hit a three to make it 51-48, a 19-7 run, thanks to seven made shots in a row, four of them 3-pointers.
But after a Powell put-back made it 52-50, May took over. He took an entry pass on the left block and easily scored on Powell, plus a free throw. Next possession, same thing, only no foul. 57-50.
On each of the next four possessions, May got the ball in the low post and either scored or, on the one occasion Illinois collapsed a double team on him, whipped a pass to an open Jawad Williams, who nailed an open 3-pointer. There was simply nothing Illinois could do about it.
On those six straight possessions, the Tar Heels outscored Illinois 13-5, and it would have gone on that way for the rest of the night, except May was starting to drag.
On the next possession he didn't fight as hard for position and took a pass in the high post, then quickly passed to Marvin Williams, who missed a jumper. On the next he merely loitered. Coach Roy Williams -- there were four men named Williams involved in this game -- sat him down briefly and Illinois promptly went on a 6-0 run that became a game-tying 10-0 run after May returned, just in time to watch helplessly as McCants -- scoreless in the second half -- drove and missed a crazy shot on the offensive end.
All of a sudden this was looking like another of those Illinois comebacks. This 37-1 team had made a habit of flirting with defeat, only to calmly drain big shots down the stretch. Brown's two free throws tied the game at 65-65 and matched the 15-point rally against Arizona in the regional final. The teams played even for the next few minutes. Felton hit a wild, long three with Williams and Brown rushing out at him, but Head countered to tie the game with 2:38 to go.
And then Illinois' shots stopped falling again.
The teams traded misses, Marvin Williams chucking up a long two for Carolina, Deron Williams misfiring on an open three for Illinois. With a minute and a half to go McCants made another drive and crazy shot, a reverse layup attempt. But this time Marvin Williams was there to tip it in for a 72-70 lead.
There was plenty of time for the Illini, but the magical shooting touch that had bailed them out in so many tough wins this year abandoned them. Head had an open look at a three from his favorite spot on the right wing: No good. Ingram rebounded, and after a timeout Williams had an open shot from almost the same spot: No good. But Carolina fumbled the rebound. Another timeout, and then disaster.
Head curled around a screen and took a pass from Brown in his other favorite spot, on the left wing. But Marvin Williams stepped out on him, so instead of rising up for his customary three he drove into the lane, an uncharacteristic play. He saw Deron Williams leaking out along the baseline toward the right corner, spotting up. But so did Felton. Head whipped a kick-out pass toward Williams and Felton stepped into its path. It was Illinois' first turnover of the half.
With less than 35 seconds remaining, Illinois had to foul. Felton made one free throw, leaving the door open, but Head missed another three from his favorite spot on the right, and that was it, save a couple more free throws by Felton. Counting a desperation three by Head at the end, Illinois missed its last five shots, including four 3-pointers. The Illini hit 12 of 40 from beyond the arc, 30 percent, and 39 percent of their shots overall.
May scored 26 points on 10-of-11 shooting, pulled down 10 rebounds and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament. As great as he was, this game, an entertaining one that lived up to its considerable hype, could have gone the other way if only Illinois' shots had fallen they way they usually do.
But that's not entirely fair. The game also could have gone the other way even without those shots falling. It didn't. May wouldn't hear of it.
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Mob wins Pool o' Experts [PERMALINK]
The wisdom of the masses prevailed in the Pool o' Experts. The consensus bracket of CBS.SportsLine.com's users, which had North Carolina going all the way, used the Tar Heels' win Monday night to overtake Yoni Cohen of Yocohoops and FoxSports.com, who almost pulled off a wire-to-wire victory.
Other than the people, only Tony Mejia of CBS.SportsLine.com, who finished fourth, and Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS, who finished fifth, had UNC winning it all. Almost everybody else had Illinois, but there were a few exceptions, including CBS announcer Tim Brando, who had Georgia Tech, earning him a last-place tie with my son Buster, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old in America, who had Creighton.
But don't laugh at Buster: He had Michigan State in the Final Four. Did you? None of the other experts did. They showed an inordinate fondness for Syracuse in that spot.
The less said about Daddy's 12th-place bracket, the better.
Here are the final standings in the Pool o' Experts, the prize for which -- dinner at my house -- is suspended this year, for what I hope is the obvious reason that we're a couple hundred thousand chairs short.
1. CBS.SportsLine.com users: 1,140 points
2. Yoni Cohen, Yocohoops/Foxsports.com: 1,110
3. Kyle Veltrop, Sporting News: 1,080
4. Tony Mejia, CBS.SportsLine.com: 1,040
5. Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated/CBS: 920
5. NCAA Selection Committee: 920
7. Stewart Mandel, Sports Illustrated: 870
7. Sports Illustrated: 870
7. Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated: 870
10. John Salley, Fox Sports: 750
11. Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News: 710
12. King Kaufman, Salon: 660
13. Luke Winn, Sports Illustrated: 620
13. Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated: 620
15. Tim Brando, Sporting News/CBS: 480
15. Buster, Coin Flip the Magazine: 480
Previous column: Baseball's opening suspension
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