EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When vindication finally came to three North Carolina seniors, they savored the moment in their own special way.
King Rice embraced his coach, Dean Smith.
Rick Fox snipped down one net -- all by himself.
And Pete Chilcutt moved from teammate to teammate, exchanging high fives and hugs.
Once Mark Macon's 25-foot jump shot bounced off the front rim, once the final 1.5 seconds ticked off the clock as the rebound went uncontrolled on the floor, the onerous weight of expectation was lifted off the collective back of these three seniors. Then the giddy celebration began.
Until yesterday, the Final Four was one cozy corner of NCAA heaven these Tar Heels had not visited. Until yesterday, for all of their successes, they had worn the label of underachievers.
That all changed with a wonderfully played, perfectly dramatic, 75-72 victory over Temple in the East Regional championship game before 19,601 at the Meadowlands Arena. Heaven is a Saturday night rendezvous in Indianapolis next weekend with Southeast Regional champion Kansas, which happens to be coached by a former Tar Heel, Roy Williams.
Heaven couldn't wait any longer for this bunch.
"There definitely was pressure on this team to win," Chilcutt said. "Fans look at the people who play a lot, and they're the ones who take the blame when you don't. Unfortunately, a really good season [at Carolina] is considered going to the Final Four."
The Tar Heels (29-5) haven't had a "really good season" since 1982. That's when two guys named Michael Jordan and James Worthy orchestrated a 63-62 victory over Georgetown in the national championship game. Yesterday's triumph ended an eight-year Final Four drought.
The last three years, the Tar Heels had lost to Arizona in the Final Eight, and to Michigan and Arkansas in the round of 16. This year they were the top seed in a regional ravaged by early upsets. Their path to Indianapolis is lined with teams seeded 16th, ninth, 12th and 10th. Until yesterday, it was a relatively easy path.
But Temple (24-10) brought its tenacious matchup zone defense and the unshakable shooting hand of Macon, their brilliant senior floor leader. Macon drilled the Tar Heels for 31 points, and was named the region's most outstanding player. It was enough to get the Owls within a point, at 73-72, with nine seconds left before Rice added two more free throws. When Macon's last-ditch three-pointer came up short at the end, so, too, did the Owls.
It wasn't Carolina's ultra-deep bench that made the difference -- this time, as it had against Eastern Michigan in Friday's 93-67 romp. This time it was the front-line players who supplied the heroics.
Fox contributed 19 points and seven rebounds. Chilcutt contributed nine rebounds. George Lynch chipped in two critical baskets down the stretch. Hubert Davis scored 19 points and was the most effective defender on Macon when Carolina played man-to-man defense. Then there was Rice, the Tar Heels' much-maligned point guard who had just one turnover in two games in the Meadowlands. He scored 12 points and handed out seven assists, but his greatest contribution was four free throws in the final 23 seconds, after Carolina had gone to an old staple, the Four Corners offense, to preserve a shrinking lead.
Carolina led 71-69 when Smith called time with 61 seconds left. Then he called Rice's number. After letting the 45-second shot clock run to 12 seconds, Rice drove against Vic Carstarphen and drew a shooting foul at :22.9. He hit both shots to make it 73-69.
Macon, getting his own rebound, answered with a three-point field goal from the top of the key. Within one, 73-72, Temple called time at :08.6. At :08, Carstarphen was whistled for holding Rice on the inbounds pass from Pat Sullivan.
Rice calmly sank both ends of his one-and-one opportunity for a 75-72 lead. "I wanted the ball so badly," he said. "Throughout my previous three years, I was an 80- to 84-percent foul shooter. This year I shot 69 percent. But I wanted it at the end of the game because I know I am a good free throw shooter."
Macon got off his desperation shot over both Fox and Davis just before the horn sounded.
Fox's ecstasy was mixed with relief. "Everyone had penciled us in [for the Final Four]," he said. "I'd have been very upset if we weren't going."
In what was perhaps a statement of unfinished business, the Tar Heels cut down only one net after the victory.
"There's still pressure to win," Davis decided. "It's not over. Everyone always expects us to win. But the big monkey is off our back. We're going to the Final Four."
No one reveled more in that fact than Fox, who wouldn't relinquish the scissors when it came to cutting down the one net.
"Rick was hysterical when he came in here," freshman center Eric Montross said in the locker room. "He was going crazy. Someone said, 'Chill out, Rick.' But he said, 'Forget it. I've gone through four years to get here.'"
Vindication has rarely been sweeter.