ST. LOUIS, April 5 - They started their careers by getting cut down.
Three cocky college freshmen with dreams of stardom and championship banners were humbled, humiliated.
That's what a 20-loss season will do, especially at a program where 20-win seasons are seen as a birthright.
But seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott ended their North Carolina careers holding on to a piece of the Edward Jones Dome nets they cut down, a trophy from their dramatic 75-70 win against Illinois in the national championship game - a game that elevated a program from embarrassment to the pinnacle of college basketball in just three years.
The title was the first in the 17-year coaching career of Roy Williams, and North Carolina's fourth national championship in its 16th trip to the Final Four.
"It's very gratifying to see Coach smile and to know that people aren't going to be able to criticize him anymore because he's finally got that one championship ring," said Sean May, who was named the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player after scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
The first matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in 30 years supplied a thrilling conclusion to a fantastic basketball season. The game started with the two teams exchanging sizable runs. After Illinois (37-2) scored on its first possession, North Carolina (33-4) scored nine straight points.
Raymond Felton made a crucial steal with 30 seconds left and added three free throws to clinch the national championship for the Tar Heels.
As the final buzzer sounded, May ran to embrace Roy Williams.