CINCINNATI -- There are lot of reasons Dean Smith has won more games than anybody in the history of the NCAA tournament. To be sure, many of the victories had to do with North Carolina's superior talent. And, certainly, Smith played a hand with his coaching.
But in some, like yesterday's 68-63 opening-round victory over Miami of Ohio in the NCAA Southeast Regional at Riverfront Coliseum, the Tar Heels and their coach got lucky. Very lucky.
All that separated North Carolina from its earliest exit in the tournament since 1978 was a steal by George Lynch, a missed three-pointer by the Redskins' hottest outside shooter, and some clutch free throws by Hubert Davis in the final 16 seconds.
"I knew they were going to be good," Smith said of Miami, in his best told-you-so manner after the Tar Heels advanced into tomorrow's second round against fifth-seeded Alabama, which later defeated Stanford, 80-75, behind the outside 51 seconds left and the Tar Heels ahead 64-61. There were a pair of five-second violations, one before Scott made two of the three free throws and one, against Davis, that gave the Redskins a chance with 32 seconds to play.
"I thought we had our chance to win," said Miami coach Joby Wright. "Sometimes the ball bounces your way at the end, and sometimes it doesn't."
It didn't for the Mid-American Conference champions. After senior guard Jamie Mercurio forced Davis into the second five-second violation, the inbounds pass went to center John McKenna. But McKenna's pass to Scott was picked off by Lynch in Miami's frontcourt with 26 seconds to go.
"He made a great play, but it wasn't a great pass," said McKenna. "You have to make a decision right there, and I made it. It turned out to be wrong."
After the Tar Heels had missed six of their previous eight free throws, Davis made a pair with 16.2 seconds left to push the Tar Heels ahead 66-63, Miami (23-8) had one final three-point opportunity. The Redskins had already made 11 of 26, including eight of 13 by Mercurio. But Mercurio was forced out to about 24 feet, and his shot hit the backboard and the front rim before falling off. Davis was fouled again and made both free throws.
"I couldn't really take my normal shot," said Mercurio, who finished eight of 15 overall to lead Miami with a game and career-high 24 points in only 23 minutes. "It almost went in off the backboard. It was just one of those things."
That was the way Davis described what had to be the worst shooting performance of his career. Those free throws, among 11 of 11 he made for the afternoon, probably saved North Carolina's senior captain from having to think about the 15 of 17 shots from the field, including all three of his three-pointers, that he missed.
Asked how he could block out such poor shooting in the closing moments at the free-throw line, Davis said: "In that situation, I felt I could hit the free throws. I wanted the ball. I felt pretty comfortable. Luckily, everything worked out."
Miami forward Michael Williams said: "There are teams in our conference that were tougher for us than North Carolina. I thought that we should've won the game."
North Carolina (22-9) survived primarily because of Eric Montross, who finished with career-high totals of 22 points and 13 rebounds. After the Tar Heels fell behind twice by seven early in the second half, the 7-foot sophomore kept his teammates in the game. Montross made his first nine shots, including a brutish layup in the lane that gave North Carolina a 52-51 lead with 9:20 remaining.
After two North Carolina misses, Montross' tip-in put the Tar Heels ahead 59-55 with a little more than three minutes left. A rebound follow by Montross after Lynch missed a pair of free throws made it 61-55. North Carolina would go up seven on a free throw by Derrick Phelps with 1:57 left. But the Redskins wouldn't go back to nearby Oxford, Ohio, without one last run.
"If we got a couple of quick threes and they kept missing free throws, we would be back in the game," said Mercurio, who had led Miami's self-anointed "Bomb Squad." He said, "When we made a couple of them, I think we got them nervous."
Just not nervous enough. Fortunately for Smith, his players were little less jumpy than he was in the final, frantic seconds. As he was watching Mercurio's desperation three-pointer sail toward the basket, he looked as if he were watching a field-goal attempt head toward the goal post, or maybe a 9-iron shot fly toward the pin. He danced. He grimaced. He celebrated.
"I said, 'Oh gosh, that's going in,' " Smith said.
It didn't, as luck would have it.