The 2005 NCAA Tournament was one of the best in the modern era. It produced a rarity, a championship game between the two teams clearly acknowledged as the best in the country, and its regional final weekend produced The Greatest Eight Ever.
North Carolina was in its second year under the direction of Roy Williams and led by Sean May, an unstoppable force underneath. Carolina had future NBA point guard Raymond Felton driving the pace in the backcourt and won the ACC title, en route to the top seed in the East Regional.
The Tar Heels had their toughest game in the Sweet 16, when they survived Villanova 67-66, thanks to a rebounding advantage keyed by May. UNC got a good battle from dark horse Wisconsin in the regional final, but behind 29 points/12 rebounds from May, the Tar Heels won 88-82. And that North Carolina-Wisconsin game? It was the worst of the four regionals, the only one that didn’t go overtime.
Illinois made a noble run at an undefeated season, getting to the regular season finale against Ohio State before losing on a late three-pointer. The Illini went on to win the conference tournament and get the #1 seed in the Midwest.
The Illini were built around a great backcourt of future NBA star Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head. They rolled through the first three games of the tournament, but in the regional final against Arizona, looked all but dead. Illinois trailed by 15 points with four minutes to play, but responded with a stunning flurry that produced overtime and an eventual 90-89 win.
North Carolina and Illinois were the consensus two best teams, but there were still two other spots to settle for the Final Four in St. Louis.
Louisville took on West Virginia in the West Regional in Albuquerque, and the Mountaineers looked ready to steamroll their way to the Final Four as a 7-seed. Head coach John Beilein had a team led by Kevin Pittsnogle, a center who could step out and hit the three-ball, and WVA built up a 17-point lead. Louisville’s pressure defense brought them all the way back and they ultimately won in overtime.
Michigan State and Kentucky met in the South Regional. A back-and-forth game saw the Spartans up eight with 5:25 to go. The Wildcats’ tied it on a buzzer three-pointer from Patrick Sparks, where his foot was so close to the arc, that it took over five minutes on replay to review. To this day, I believe the officials got it right and to this day, I can’t be sure. That’s how close it was.
The Wildcats would get a chance to win the game in the first overtime, but couldn’t get a good shot off at the end. Sparty, led by 24 points from guard Shannon Brown, finally pulled away in double overtime and won 94-88. Theirs was the final game on late Sunday afternoon, capping a weekend of thrills for college basketball fans.
Normally a couple of relatively dry games on Semi-Final Saturday at the Final Four is a cause for disappointment, but in this case, maybe we all just needed to catch our collective breath.
On a Saturday when the world mourned the passing of Pope John Paul II, North Carolina and Illinois took the drama out of the basketball. After competitive first halves, each favorite pulled away to a double-digit win. Illinois over Louisville in the first game and Carolina over Michigan State in the nightcap.
It looked like the championship game might continue the anti-climactic theme, as North Carolina took a 40-27 lead at halftime. The Illini had no answer for May underneath. But Illinois had heart and that superb backcourt, and they stormed all the way back in the second half, eventually pulling even. In the end though, the Heels had too much May and they survived with a 75-70 win.
North Carolina had its first national title since 1993 and the first of the post-Dean Smith era. Williams had the first crown of his career. And the nation witnessed two great heavyweight slugging it out on Monday night, the end to a great NCAA Tournament ride.