- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas Before the new North Carolina basketball team completed its astounding run to the Final Four, the old Tar Heels made an encore appearance.

North Carolina backed into the 15th national semifinal in school history yesterday, outlasting ice-cold Tulsa 59-55 in the South Region championship. After taking a 10-point lead late in the second half, the eighth-seeded Tar Heels (22-13) hit just enough free throws and got one big break to avoid blowing a nine-point edge in the final 2:17.

The aesthetically challenged contest, before 16,731 at the Erwin Center, was capped by an awkward moment in which Carolina's players seemed to wonder whether they should celebrate.

"Did somebody win?" Tar Heels forward Kris Lang later said with a laugh. "We wanted to make it interesting for everyone. We didn't want to seal it at the end. We had to get the ratings up for everyone."

Actually, Lang would be well-served not to pursue that punch line too far, considering the incestuous CBS love-fest interview that went on afterward, in which former-Tar Heel-turned-color-commentator James Worthy heaped praise upon his alma mater.

Conspiracy theories aside, North Carolina got pretty lucky. Seventh-seeded Tulsa (32-5) shot just 31.3 percent after intermission, including 25 percent (3-for-12) from 3-point range. That negated the Tar Heels' 34.6 percent shooting in the second half and three turnovers in the game's final two minutes.

Carolina's big break came with 28.7 seconds left and five seconds on the shot clock. Senior point guard Ed Cota, who had two of the aforementioned three turnovers, nearly committed another when he threw a bad pass to the interior. But the ball bounced off the foot of Tulsa's Dante Swanson, resetting the 35-second shot clock and forcing the Golden Hurricane to foul.

Freshman shooting guard Joseph Forte (28 points) hit both ends of a one-and-one to make it 57-52, but Swanson (15 points) nailed a 3-pointer with 20.7 seconds left. Cota and Forte then each missed one of two free throws in separate trips to the line, but Tulsa failed to get off a good shot.

"Ed was completely worn out there at the end, and they were able to take advantage of that," Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said. "But we didn't lose our poise. We lost some points, but we didn't lose our poise."

For Guthridge, in particular, the victory was a cathartic climax to one of Carolina's worst seasons since the mid-1960s. In Carolina's third year under Guthridge, who spent 30 seasons as an assistant to Dean Smith, the Tar Heels fell from No. 2 in the national poll to unranked for the first time in more than nine years.

This, despite starting five former McDonald's All-Americans. Carolina entered the NCAA tournament having lost seven of nine, and already was tied for its most losses (13) since the ACC was created. But somehow the Tar Heels have overcome their mediocrity to win four straight.

"This team is in a class by itself," said Cota, now the first Carolina point guard to reach three Final Fours. "It took us awhile to really get used to each other, to learn how to win. The teams I was on in the past, they knew how to win. This team, it kind of got it done late in the season, but there couldn't have been a better time for it."

In the first half the game looked like it might be a classic. The game saw seven ties and 13 lead changes before intermission, at which point Tulsa held a narrow 31-30 edge.

Carolina then scored the first six points of the second period, taking the lead 11 seconds in and holding it the rest of the way. Twice Tulsa went four minutes without scoring; in the first stretch Carolina scored just two points, but in the second the Tar Heels generated 10 to take a 51-41 lead with 5:25 left.

Forte hit 10 of 17 field-goal attempts while the rest of his team shot just 36 percent. The rookie out of DeMatha High School was named the region's most outstanding player. He was the only Tar Heel to score in double figures, and he led Carolina in rebounding (eight).

Ultimately, it was the battle of the boards that did in Tulsa. Carolina outrebounded the shorter Golden Hurricane 40-29, nixing Tulsa's opportunities on the offensive glass.

"[Rebounding] was huge, because neither team could get it going," Tar Heels swingman Jason Capel said. "We were bigger than they were, so we tried to get second shots, limit them to one shot, and just take our time. Once we got the lead, time was on our side."

Even for the old Tar Heels.

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