ST. LOUIS (AP)—For a while there, Roy Williams must have had flashbacks of Final Fours past.
Not to worry.
North Carolina is not Kansas, and the Tar Heels have Williams just one victory away from that cherished national championship.
Spurred on by a passionate halftime speech from Williams, North Carolina showed off a dizzying display of weapons in the second half and cruised to an 87-71 victory over Michigan State on Saturday night. The Tar Heels moved on to the title game against top-ranked Illinois.
Sean May scored 22 points—all but four after halftime. Jawad Williams added 20, keeping the Tar Heels in the game when just about everyone else was struggling in the first half. Rashad McCants chipped in with 17 points. And Raymond Felton contributed 16 while running the point.
This is a deep, talented bunch—and perhaps the best chance yet for coach Williams to finally win the last game of the season. He made it to four Final Fours during 15 years at Kansas, losing twice in the championship game and two more times in the semifinals.
The Tar Heels (32-4) certainly have their work cut out for them Monday night, taking on an Illinois team that has lost only once and was ranked No. 1 much of the season. The Illini cruised past Louisville 72-57 in the first semifinal Saturday.
“Illinois is a great club,” Williams said. “I think they’ve done the most of anybody all year long, but we get to play the game.”
But North Carolina ended the regular season ranked second, setting up the first 1-2 matchup in the final since UCLA defeated Kentucky in 1975.
Michigan State (26-7), which already had knocked off Duke and Kentucky in the regional, seemed poised to knock off another member of college basketball’s royalty. The feisty Spartans shut down May, crashed the boards relentlessly and led 38-33 at halftime.
“The first half, I didn’t think it was North Carolina out there,” Williams said.
He thought his team was taking too many shots from beyond the 3-point arc. He didn’t see them diving for loose balls. He didn’t think they were helping each other on defense.
So he gave his players an earful.
“He got his point across, let me put it like that,” Felton said, trying to suppress a telling smile.
North Carolina scored the first six points of the second half to reclaim the lead, made 11 of its first 15 shots to take control and spent the final minutes putting on an emphatic dunkfest.
Williams, wearing a powder blue tie, ran off the court to chants of “Roy! Roy!” The coach even slapped hands with some fans as he sprinted down the tunnel.
May, held to 2-of-8 shooting in the first half, hit 7 of 10 shots over the final 20 minutes. In fact, the Tar Heels scored more points in the first 10 minutes of the second half than they did in the entire first half. By the end, they were right at their nation’s-best scoring average of 88.8 points per game.
Led by May, North Carolina dominated on the inside, finishing with a commanding 46-28 edge for points in the lane. The Tar Heels also outrebounded Michigan State 51-42—27-16 in the second half.
“In the first half, we executed the game plan about as well as we have all year,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We really dug in on May. (Jawad) Williams went off a little bit, but we got every loose ball. We got after it defensively.”
And the second half?
“We fell apart a little bit, to be honest with you,” Izzo conceded.
The first half was tight most of the way. Michigan State finally got a little breathing room when Shannon Brown hit back-to-back 3-pointers from each side of the court, scoring eight straight points in all to push the Spartans to a 35-27 lead with 2 1/2 minutes remaining.
State made only 15 of 40 shots but created plenty of second chances with its work on the boards. As for May, he was surrounded by green every time he touched the ball.
It didn’t last. The son of former Indiana star Scott May came alive after halftime. Sometimes, he kicked the ball out to an open teammate. Sometimes, he simply muscled his way toward the basket, making the shot or drawing a foul.
“Yeah! Let’s go!” he screamed after one especially dominating move in the paint.
“I’ve been told the least important score is the halftime score, so I wasn’t worried that we were down,” May said. “I didn’t play well in the first half, but Coach told me, ‘We’re not going to stop coming to you.’ They had faith in me.”
Michigan State made only 10 of 34 shots in the second half, finishing at just under 34 percent. Maurice Ager typified the Spartans’ offensive woes, leading the way with 24 points but finishing just 6 of 18 from the field.
The final is a matchup between two sentimental coaching favorites. The mother of Illinois’ Bruce Weber died last month during the Big Ten tournament. Then there’s Williams, who never quite could take Kansas all the way.
Williams, who’s willing to put his emotions on display for all to see, went through a gut-wrenching decision to leave the Jayhawks when the Carolina called him home two years ago.
Williams is a Tar Heel through and through—a North Carolina native, he went to school in Chapel Hill, sent his two children to school there and learned the coaching ropes as an assistant to Dean Smith.
When Carolina first called, Williams couldn’t bring himself to leave Kansas. But he finally made the move that always seemed his destiny when the Tar Heels came back to him in 2003, eager for the right man—the only man—to rebuild a program that fell into disarray under Matt Doherty.
Now, just three years removed from a 20-loss debacle and with Smith watching from the stands, North Carolina put itself just one victory away from its first national championship since 1993.
Williams’ last trip to the title game was his last hurrah at Kansas. The Jayhawks lost 81-78 to Syracuse, a potentially tying 3-pointer blocked in the waning seconds.
Michigan State was no tournament neophyte, reaching its fourth Final Four in seven years under Izzo. The Spartans won it all in 2000.
But not this year.
“We just didn’t have enough weapons,” Izzo said. “It’s going to be a great championship game with two No. 1 seeds. It’s probably the way it’s supposed to be.”