- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The threat was always implied whenever North Carolina stepped onto the floor this season.

Run at your own risk.

Southern Cal, with its starting lineup littered with athleticism and its shallow bench providing little offensive punch, gave it a try. And now its season is over.

The top-seeded Tar Heels overcame a 16-point deficit in the second half, storming past the fifth-seeded Trojans 74-64 in an East Region semifinal at Continental Airlines Arena.

“We feel very lucky,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We don’t have ego or confidence to stop us from saying that.”

Brandan Wright scored 21 points for North Carolina (31-6), which advanced to tomorrow’s regional final against Georgetown (29-6).

The Hoyas were a 66-65 winner over Vanderbilt in the night’s first game, and it was a difficult performance for any nightcap to live up to. But the Tar Heels gave it a go, falling behind several times before finally blowing past the Trojans (25-12) in the final 12 minutes.

It was a textbook example of attrition, the deeper and more talented Heels simply wearing down a plucky Trojans team making its first appearance in a regional since 2001. And never was it more evident than during an 18-0 run that erased a double-digit deficit and kept UNC from becoming the only No. 1 seed to miss the regional finals.

“It wasn’t going to happen in two minutes,” Williams said of the comeback. “I told them it might take the whole half. But I did think it would get done.”

Marcus Ginyard, the defensive stopper who made his first start of the season with Reyshawn Terry battling illness, scored five straight points to ignite the spurt. Wright’s baby hook cut the Trojans’ edge to 59-56, prompting a timeout from coach Tim Floyd to regroup.

It didn’t happen nearly soon enough. Ginyard’s tip-in on Carolina’s next possession trimmed the deficit to one, and the ensuing sequence encapsulated the rally.

Southern Cal tried to inbound it at the other end, only for Danny Green to step in for the steal. He sent it ahead to Wayne Ellington, then trailed and converted a shot when Ellington missed an open layup.

The Trojans, helpless as they went more than eight minutes without a field goal, crumpled in the face of Carolina’s pressure defense in the second. Southern Cal committed 10 of its 18 turnovers after the break, and could do little to rally after Carolina assumed a 67-59 lead on Ellington’s basket with 4:39 left.

The vexation mounted as the Trojans’ opportunities elapsed, especially when Nick Young fouled out with 48.5 seconds left. A disgusted Floyd tossed some papers onto the floor, earning a technical foul for his display of frustration.

So much was made all season of the Tar Heels’ impressive depth and posse of slick guards capable of running opponents off the floor. But in Roy Williams-speak, Carolina’s bread and butter was a consistent inside game personified by Wright and bruising center Tyler Hansbrough, who scored only five points.

The Trojans would have none of it early, contesting virtually every pass (let alone shot) while relentlessly pestering the Tar Heels. Hansbrough earned few clear looks, and Carolina’s best interior scoring chances were created either on offensive rebounds or because of Wright’s athleticism.

Southern Cal had its own interior answer in freshman Taj Gibson. The lithe 6-foot-9, 210-pound Brooklyn native carved up the Tar Heels, using his own surplus of speed to navigate the paint and score 16 points.

But he picked up his fourth foul with 12:25 left, and Wright and the Tar Heels soon pounced in his absence.

Gibson was also effective in the first half as North Carolina tried to establish itself. Terry did not start after battling strep throat for much of the week, yielding his spot to Ginyard as the Tar Heels went with a three-guard set. Terry did play, scoring seven points to help Carolina pull itself out of an early malaise.

It was Terry’s 3-pointer with 4:01 left in the first half that put Carolina within a point. But the Tar Heels missed their last shots before the break, allowing Southern Cal to stretch the lead back to 42-33.

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