Year in Review: UNC tops Illinois in NCAA title game

By Lisa Koulias

Editor’s note: this story was originally published April 5, 2005.

ST LOUIS – So much for their happy ending.

In Monday’s NCAA Championship game against North Carolina, the Illini ended their fairy tale season.

It just wasn’t the right ending.

Like most fairy tales, the Illini would have finished on top, but instead the No. 1 team fell to the No. 2 team, North Carolina, 75-70, losing its chance to win the school’s first National Championship.

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“We had one thought coming into the game, and that was to fight to the last breath, and that’s what we did,” said senior forward Jack Ingram. “(Coach) told us it was an honor to come this far and that he couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Illinois caps off one of the best seasons in its 100-year history. The Illini were ranked the No. 1 team in the nation for 15-straight weeks – the most in school history.

They finished their regular season with a 29-1 record.

They won back-to-back outright Big Ten titles and the Big Ten Tournament Championship.

They came back from a 15-point deficit to beat Arizona and advance to the school’s fifth Final Four appearance.

Monday was Illinois’ first trip to the National Championship game.

But with all the good that came from the season, it still hurts to end this way.

“We know we did some special things,” said junior guard Deron Williams. “Of course we are going to be sad right now. It’s going to take some time to get through this, but you can’t win them all.”

The first half saw an uncharacteristic Illini team on the court. They were missing open shots, committing unnecessary fouls and even let the shot clock run down on a possession. At halftime, they trailed 27-40, the second time all season the team has trailed by more than 10 points.

Ingram was the leading scorer for the Illini at the half with seven points, as they shot their lowest shooting percentage for a half all year at 27 percent.

North Carolina shot 55.2 percent in the first half, led by 14 points from Rashad McCants.

“I didn’t think we fought very hard in the first half,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “They played with a lot more urgency. We lost our poise down the stretch in the first half. It probably cost us because now you have such a margin to come back.

“You know, we played our hearts out in the second half. It was a tremendous game, No. 1 and 2, we lived up to it. It went down to the last couple possessions.”

While the Illini kept fighting to stay in the game, North Carolina’s Sean May and Raymond Felton exploded for 27 of the team’s 35 second-half points. May finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds.

The Illini were able to tie the game twice, once at 5:34 left and the second time with 2:41 left, thanks to a three-point basket by Luther Head. But the Illini missed their last five shots, and the national title.

“We just talked about going down fighting,” Weber said. “This is a game they’re going to remember the rest of their life. We had chances; we just didn’t come up with the plays this time and they did.”

Roy Williams won his first NCAA Championship as the Tar Heels won their fourth championship.

“This is unbelievable,” May said. “I just can’t believe it. All the hard work, long hours, it has paid off, it’s finally paid off. I don’t think I can get up any higher.”