EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was scheduled as a late-season break from the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, but when North Carolina played Temple last, it was a made-for-TV affair.
It was 1988, and North Carolina had a six-game winning streak on the way to winning the ACC title. But by the end of the day, Temple had a 83-66 win, the Tar Heels' worst home loss since Maryland beat them, 96-74, in 1975.
"It was embarrassing because they really came in and outplayed us," North Carolina guard King Rice, a freshman then, recalled yesterday. "The loss was a big blow to that team."
For the three seniors on that North Carolina team -- Rice, Rick Fox and Pete Chilcutt -- today is the chance to avenge that defeat, when the top-seeded Tar Heels face the 10th-seeded Owls in the National Collegiate Athletic Association East Region final at the Meadowlands Arena.
North Carolina (28-5) is making its first trip to a regional final since losing to Arizona in the West Regional final in 1988. Temple's most recent appearance in a regional final was also 1988. The then-top-ranked Owls were beaten by Duke in the East final at the Meadowlands.
The Tar Heels, ranked fourth at the end of the regular season, are as worthy of their round-of-eight appearance as they were in 1988 when they finished 27-7. But Temple, which finished 32-2 then, is a surprise this season, especially after being eliminated in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament.
"I still can't believe it," Temple coach John Chaney said, reiterating his thoughts Friday night after his team beat No. 3 seed Oklahoma State. "I think it's different getting this far this time because there were so many expectations and a lot of anxiety then. This time we were not expected to, so that's a little sweeter."
Chaney realizes his team faces a tall task against a North Carolina team that has won by an average of 25 points in three tournament games. The key for the Tar Heels is their depth.
"They put a lot of fresh, talented bodies on the floor," Chaney said. "Their key is the center of the floor. If they get the passes off to the center, we'll be down the turnpike as also-rans."
The Owls have been successful in shutting opponents down in the tournament, allowing 63.3 points per game and 44 percent shooting from the field. Temple uses what Chaney describes as a "mix-up zone," which is a match-up zone defense that limited Oklahoma State forward Byron Houston to 14 points in 44 minutes.
"We haven't played against that zone this year at all," North Carolina coach Dean Smith said. "It isn't going to be a high-scoring game -- but it isn't going to be in the 50s either."
Smith's main concern is trying to stop Temple's Mark Macon, who scored 26 points -- including eight in overtime Friday.
"Mark Macon has had a great career and has done a tremendous job in redeeming himself from his freshman year," said Smith, referring to Macon's six-of-29 performance in the regional finals in 1988. "He's shown that he's for real, and I think he's shown that all along."
While Temple looks at Macon much of the time to score, North Carolina has numerous scoring options. Fox leads the team with a 16.9 scoring average, but, when he got into foul trouble against Eastern Michigan, it was Hubert Davis and Chilcutt who each scored 18 points, and Eric Montross -- part of the highly touted freshman class -- who added a career-high 17 points in 18 minutes.
"We're deep, but at this point I don't think you need to be," Smith said. "Everyone talks about the high school All-Americans we have, but I'd rather have college All-Americans."
Temple has beaten two ACC teams -- Georgia Tech and Clemson -- but Chaney said that means nothing today.
"I want the team to realize that who we beat in the past is over," Chaney said. "We want to worry about how we're going to play, instead of who we play."