Carolina can celebrate its return to the elite

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – North Carolina guard Raymond Felton dribbled out the clock in the Carrier Dome, and at the final horn, he took off. Clutching the ball to his stomach with his left hand, he hopped, he skipped and he howled.

"We goin'," Felton screamed, then punched the air with a roundhouse right ...

... "To the Final Four!"

That outburst, and the exultant eruption that followed from all in Carolina blue, told a story three years in the making. It told a story of how far college basketball's Microsoft program had slipped, how much pressure rode on the Tar Heels' spectacular junior class to bring it back – and how hard Wisconsin made them work for it.

What those of us on the outside saw as semi-formality – who didn't expect this talent-laden team to make the Final Four, especially when their regional bracket fell apart? – the Heels saw as an act of deliverance.

"I don't know if we've met our potential, but we've done our part," said the man whose part was biggest Sunday, powerhouse center Sean May. "I think we've brought this program back. We helped bring back Carolina basketball."

Carolina basketball is back because of May, Felton and Rashad McCants, the class recruited by Matt Doherty and elevated by Roy Williams. A group that arrived after an 8-20 low struggled through an NIT season, May's broken foot, a coaching change and a second-round NCAA knockout last year – not the stuff of powder blue legend.

The natives were restless enough that several former Tar Heels lectured this current group after a summer alumni game. Makhtar Ndiaye – not exactly the keeper of the Carolina flame – labeled them the "Chapel Hill Lakers": all that talent, and no championships to show for it.

It was time for the juniors to grow up, and to take the rest of the team with them. This year they did just that, rolling to a 30-4 record and Carolina's first Final Four since 2000, after holding off the valiant Badgers 88-82.

"That's what we've all been shooting for since we came here," Felton said. "We've had some bumps and bruises along the way, but none of that matters. We're here now."

The junior trio combined for 67 of Carolina's 88 points, 21 of its 33 rebounds and 13 of its 19 assists. Every one of them earned their pieces of championship net.

The 6-foot-9, 266-pound May bludgeoned the single coverage he got most of the game from Wisconsin, racking up 29 points and 12 rebounds.

"He uses his body well," said Mike Wilkinson, the unfortunate soul charged with trying to keep the baby bull away from the basket. "He gets it down there. He's almost unstoppable, and he even knocked down some jump shots today. He just played amazingly all over the floor."

Felton had 17 points and seven assists, and the 67.5 percent foul shooter made six clutch free throws in the final minute to ice the game. Williams said Saturday that Felton might be the most indispensable player he's had in 17 years as a head coach, and he proved it the two games here in Syracuse. When he went out – because of foul trouble or a sprained foot – Carolina was desperate for a ball handler.

"I don't really like Raymond when he does that to us," said McCants, looking sideways at his sidekick. "He's our floor general, our leader on the court. ... Nobody can really replace Raymond Felton."

The mercurial McCants aided and abetted a first-half Badgers comeback from 11 down with three straight me-first possessions – two quick shots and an ill-advised drive, resulting in a benching. But his incredible talent carried the day in the end, as he finished with 21 points, four rebounds, four assists and a big block of a Clayton Hanson 3 in the final minutes.

The very fact that former walk-on Hanson was taking a vital shot in the closing minutes – and everyone in Carolina blue was tensing with anxiety when he went up – tells you how unexpectedly tight this game was. The up-tempo Tar Heels got the pace they wanted against the deliberate Badgers, but still wound up in a 40-minute fight.

I'm not a fan of Wisconsin's normal plodding pace, but it's impossible not to admire the way plucky Bucky Badger played Sunday. Alando Tucker scored 25 points, proving to be a mismatch for everyone Carolina tried on him – and they tried everybody but Michael Jordan. Kammron Taylor came off the bench to score 18. And Hanson, left open all day until McCants' timely block, splashed five 3s.

Every time it looked like the Heels were ready to run Wisconsin out of the gym, back the Badgers came. Down 44-33, they scored the final 11 points of the first half – and the first five of the second. They played beyond their No. 6 seeding, and seemingly beyond their individual talents.

"I haven't been around a team that's done what this group has done with what they've had," coach Bo Ryan said. "And I'm telling you, this group is unbelievable."

But even an unbelievable effort wasn't enough when it butted up against the talent of North Carolina. And when it was over, and the explosive celebration was on, you knew how much hope, hype and weight the Heels had riding on their shoulders.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.