ST. LOUIS - Finally, Roy Williams had a good reason to cry. Stymied so many times before in his pursuit of a title, the longtime coach broke through Monday night.
The tears this time were tears of joy, the result a 75-70 victory over Illinois that finally gave Williams the national championship that was missing from his otherwise stellar 17-year career.
‘‘I’m just so happy for myself, my family,’’ Williams said. ‘‘These seniors . . . they took me for a heck of a ride.’’
Sean May had 26 points and the Tar Heels didn’t allow a basket over the final, excruciating 2 1 /2 minutes.
Freshman Marvin Williams had a tip-in with 1:26 left, Raymond Felton made three free throws down the stretch and the Tar Heels (33-4) won their first title since 1993, back when Dean Smith was coaching and Williams was at Kansas, in the middle of his Final Four futility.
‘‘He is the greatest coach,’’ Felton said. ‘‘If he retired tomorrow, I would vote for him for the Hall of Fame. He told us he would bring us a championship, and we did it as a team.’’
Led by May’s 10-for-11 shooting, Carolina took a 65-55 lead with 8:51 left, and it looked like Williams would win his 41st tournament game and first championship going away.
But Illinois (37-2) never quits. The Illini shot 27 percent in the first half and trailed by 13 at halftime.
They trailed by 15 early in the second and 10 a bit later. They tied the game twice in the last 5 1 /2 minutes, but when they had a chance to force overtime, Luther Head missed a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left, ending their chance to set the NCAA record for wins in a season.
‘‘We lost our poise down the stretch in the first half,’’ Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. ‘‘That probably cost us because now you have such a margin to come back.’’
When it was over — after Felton had made his last two free throws, after May had cradled his 10th and final rebound — Williams took off his glasses and started looking for people to hug.
A few moments later, he was crying, much like he has at the end of every season. Usually, the tears come because he has to say goodbye. No goodbye will be as sweet as this one.
‘‘For Coach to be able to say that the first team to get him a championship was the 2005 team is an honor,’’ said May, whose 26 points were the same as his dad, Scott, scored in leading Indiana to the 1976 title over Michigan. ‘‘He’ll win a few more before he’s done.’’
Head led Illinois with 21 points. He had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer that would have tied the game at 73, but it bounded off. Felton made the final two free throws, and Weber’s magical ride with the Illini wound up one win short of the real fairy-tale ending he hoped for.
‘‘It goes down in history,’’ Weber said. ‘‘Not only Illinois history, NCAA history. Tied the most wins ever, No. 1 for all the time. You get to the championship game. You know, I mean, if you’re not happy with this, I feel sorry for you, because life ain’t getting better.’’
It did get better for Williams, though.
The coach left Kansas to take over the Tar Heels two years ago, after the program Smith built had faltered and fallen to 8-20. Williams took a ton of heat for leaving the Jayhawks suddenly after losing in the title game in 2003 — his fourth close call at the Final Four.
He defended the move, saying coming back to his alma mater had always been his dream.
‘‘The last three or four days, I had five or six of them call me and wish me good luck,’’ he said of his former players.
It took two years to rebuild, and this week he dealt with a more familiar issue: Did he need to win a title to call his career a success?
He told the story of Smith insisting he was no better a coach after he finally won one in 1982, but Williams conceded that answering that ‘‘same doggone question’’ did get a little annoying at times.
When he walked into the interview room after this win, his first statement echoed Smith.
‘‘I’m no better coach than I was three hours ago,’’ Williams declared.
The win gave North Carolina its fourth overall title, fourth-most in NCAA history and one more than archrival Duke. Celebrating in the locker room afterward were former Tar Heel Michael Jordan and Smith, the coach Williams patterned his career after.
Felton finished with 17 points and seven assists and Rashad McCants had 14 for the Tar Heels, all in the first half.
Deron Williams scored 17 and Dee Brown had 12 for the Illini, but they needed a combined 39 shots to get there — and, in the end, the 27-for-70 shooting night just couldn’t be overcome.