McCants puts Heels back in Final Four

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - No one sacrificed more than Rashad McCants to make sure North Carolina got back to the Final Four. So it was only fitting that he made the plays when the Tar Heels needed him most.

The star guard, no longer the team's leading scorer this year while accepting a more team-oriented role, swished a clutch 3-pointer and had two huge defensive stops down the stretch, leading top-seeded North Carolina past Wisconsin 88-82 Sunday in the final of the Syracuse Regional.

Email newsletter signup

Sean May led the Tar Heels (31-4) with 29 points and 12 rebounds, and Raymond Felton added 17 points - including four free throws in the final minute to seal it. But it was McCants who did the most to end a marvelous run by the sixth-seeded Badgers (25-9) and send the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the first time since 2000.

They will play Michigan State, which beat Kentucky 94-88 in double overtime, next Saturday in St. Louis.

With North Carolina clinging to a three-point lead, McCants jumped high to swat away a 3 by Clayton Hanson with about 2 minutes left, Hanson's only miss of the second half from beyond the arc. Later, when Kammron Taylor drove to the basket, McCants again was there to stop him.

''I knew they were going to come at me,'' McCants said. ''I took that as an assignment and shut him down.''

Wisconsin closed within three again on an alley-oop dunk by Alando Tucker before McCants made his 3-pointer, coming off a screen by Marvin Williams to give North Carolina an 81-75 lead. He finished with 21 points.

That proved to be enough, and when the final buzzer sounded, McCants and Felton spent several seconds embracing in the lane while teammates quickly donned hats that read ''Syracuse Regional Champions.''

Coach Roy Williams advanced to the Final Four for the fifth time in his career; after four trips with Kansas, he's taking his alma mater in only his second season there.

''It's special, there's no question about it,'' Williams said. ''I loved 15 years at Kansas. I loved those four times there. But I did go to school here, my wife went to school here, my son went to school here and my daughter went to school here. It is special.''

One by one, he sent his players up a ladder to cut down nets on both ends of the court. He did the same when North Carolina clinched its first outright Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title since 1993, choosing to ignore any criticism for celebrating before the NCAA tournament.

No one could blame him this time.

''It's an unbelievable feeling,'' May said. ''It just didn't seem real. The emotions were indescribable. You have to go through it yourself.''

Tucker scored 25 points for the Badgers, who - despite their reputation for steady and methodical offense - never once tried to slow the pace. They scored more than 80 points for only the third time this season and the first since Dec. 27.

Still, they stayed close throughout, led by Tucker and the shooting of Hanson, a former walk-on. He scored 15 points - all on 3s - after averaging only 6.2 coming into the regional.

''Any time the season ends like this, it's emotional,'' Hanson said. ''Five years down the road, I'll be proud of it. But, right now, it stinks.''

Hanson's final points came with 8:48 left, nailing a jumper after Mike Wilkinson passed out of a double team. That cut the Tar Heels' lead to 68-67, and although Wisconsin never led down the stretch, the margin never was greater than five until the final seconds.

Wilkinson scored from the baseline with 3:52 remaining to bring the Badgers within a single point, and after Felton clanged a 3-pointer off the rim, Wisconsin had a chance for the lead. But Taylor missed from the lane and May was there for the rebound, leading to two free throws from Marvin Williams to make it 76-73.

That's when Hanson tried again to tie it, and McCants made sure he didn't.

''I was in the right place at the right time,'' he said.

The leading scorer in the ACC last season as a sophomore, McCants' average went down more than four points to 15.8. His shots are way down and his assists are up - he has more assists than turnovers for the first time in his career. He was first-team all conference in the ACC last year; his junior year he slipped to third-team all conference.

Meanwhile, May has become the No. 1 offensive option. The burly center certainly was that in this victory, shooting 13-of-19 to reach double figures for the 19th straight game.

In 14 of those, he's also grabbed at least 10 rebounds, an incredible stretch that led to him being selected second-team All-America.

''There's not a lot of guys built like him, and he knows how to use his body,'' Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. ''If the big man isn't scoring, he's not going to get the ball.''

Notes: Wisconsin reserve C Greg Stiemsma scored two points in the first half, his first points since finishing with a career-high four against Michigan on Feb. 16. He was in for three minutes after playing less than one combined in the previous five. … Tar Heels F Jawad Williams had two layups in less than a minute in the second half, both off passes from May, and finished with six points after totaling only three in the previous two games.