Despite one of the club’s most impressive offensive performances of the year, Wisconsin ultimately fell short in the home stretch as the top-seeded Tar Heels shot 53.1 percent from the field and compiled a 19-9 assist-to-turnover ratio to narrowly dodge an Elite Eight upset.
“We’re ecstatic,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “Somebody said (about the Tar Heels near loss to Villanova Friday), ‘David almost beat Goliath the other night.’ Once you get to the 16, there’s no David, no Goliath, period. Everybody is really, really good.”
As the game clock read 1:38, Wisconsin forward Alando Tucker rocketed to the rim and grabbed a feed from point guard Sharif Chambliss for the alley-oop dunk. With the dunk, the Badgers trailed just 78-75.
Tucker led all Wisconsin scorers with 25 points on the afternoon. Three other Badgers scored in double figures (Taylor, 18; Clayton Hanson, 15; Mike Wilkinson, 11).
“We were swinging the ball; we were making good plays,” Tucker said. “We were making the extra pass every time and guys were knocking down the big shots.”
Yet, in a game of runs and clutch baskets, it was North Carolina point guard Raymond Felton who offered the last word.
On the ensuing possession, standout two-guard Rashad McCants received a pass from the point and drilled a straight-on trey to extend the lead to six. While the McCants basket seemed like a dagger, Wisconsin responded in timely fashion as guard Kammron Taylor swiftly sank the 3-point eraser. Taylor’s shot cut the Tar Heel lead to three with just less than a minute to play.
With time dwindling, Taylor fouled Raymond Felton, sending the junior guard to the free-throw line in the single bonus. Felton sank both shots from the charity stripe, forcing Wisconsin into a two-possession game.
Despite being rattled by a hard Taylor foul, Felton grabbed the following three inbounds and shot a perfect 6-for-6 from the line in the final minute to buy his team passage to the Final Four.
“Sean (May) was telling me to calm down,” Felton said. “[He told me,] ‘Don’t worry about it, keep your head in the game and concentrate, and knock down the free throws.'”
While Felton and McCants walked off the 11th-hour heroes, the performance of North Carolina’s Sean May in the post proved the difference in the contest. Slamming home a 29-point, 12-rebound performance, May kept the North Carolina offensive juggernaut in motion during sporadic shooting lulls.
May got rolling early on the offensive end of the floor. The junior dropped in eight of the Tar Heels’ first 10 points as North Carolina sailed to an early lead. Wisconsin battled to grab a brief one-point margin in the opening minutes after Wilkinson drained a 3-point shot 1:48 into the game.
With Tucker scrapping in the post, the Badgers kept it close despite a number of North Carolina buckets on the fast break. A brief Tar Heel run, capped by a coast-to-coast lay-up by McCants, extended the Carolina lead to 18-11 at 5:53. Another unimpeded May lay-up on the following UNC possession widened the gap to nine points.
Wisconsin battled back to within four before another UNC run put the Badgers, once again, at a comfortable distance. North Carolina led 30-19 after an earthshaking May dunk with 7:32 left in the half.
Led by Hanson’s perimeter shooting, Wisconsin pulled within five again before another UNC onslaught restored the differential to double digits with just less than three minutes left in the half.
A brief tear by Taylor hacked the lead down to three with just more than a minute left. Taylor finished with a basket on two drives and converted twice on a trip to the charity stripe to register six points in less than a minute. The Badgers iced the late-period spree with a game-tying Chambliss 3-pointer.
After the intermission, the Badgers jumped out to their first lead since the opening minutes of the game with Tucker converting on a 3-point play. On the following possession, the sophomore forward extended the Badger lead to five at the 2:18 mark of the second half.
At the 3:08 mark, a McCants reverse lay-up gave UNC a 52-49 lead helping to spur a 14-0 run before a Tucker lay-up stopped the bleeding.
Chambliss knocked down a 3-pointer to pull Wisconsin within four 7:05 into the second half. The battling squads exchanged baskets for the next minute-and-a-half before Hanson dropped a pair of 3-pointers midway through the half.
Hanson notched all 15 of his points from behind the arc, where he shot 5-for-8 in the game. The last of his successful looks came with 8:48 remaining to slash the North Carolina lead to 68-67.
Within five minutes of Hanson chopping the UNC lead to a single point, the regional favorite beat back the insurgent Badgers on three occasions — never surrendering the lead but allowing the advantage to slip down to a single point on each occasion.
On Hanson’s final 3-point attempt, a leaping McCants swatted the shot to preserve a 76-73 Tar Heel advantage.
“I knew they were going to come at me with a 3-point shooter, and I took it as a defensive sign to shut them down,” McCants said. “I feel like I’m good enough defensively to guard anybody.”
In the final minute of play, North Carolina made 7-of-8 free throws to secure the program’s first trip to the Final Four since 2000.