NEW YORK CAROLINA SENDS ALABAMA HOME, 64-55 TAR HEELS IN FINAL 16 FOR 12TH TIME IN ROW — CINCINNATI -- Go figure out this North Carolina basketball team. Dean Smith can't, and he has coached in Chapel Hill for 31 years. He has also won more games than anybody else in the history of the NCAA tournament.
The 18th-ranked Tar Heels, who seemed one game away from their spring break after Thursday's five-point win over Miami of Ohio, are taking Smith to his 12th straight Sweet 16.
North Carolina wasn't near its best yesterday against Alabama at Riverfront Coliseum in the second round of the Southeast Regional, but the Crimson Tide was close to its worst. The result was a routine 64-55 victory for the fourth-seeded Tar Heels.
"I thought we played better than we did against Miami, but people didn't give them credit," said Smith, who added to his record for victories in the tournament (49). "But I don't think we can throw the ball around like we did today if we want to go on."
North Carolina (23-9) committed 23 turnovers against the Crimson Tide, most of them coming in the first 30 minutes. But Alabama (26-9) never found its range, missing 49 of the 69 shots it tried, including 21 of 28 from three-point range.
The Tar Heels got a little breathing room right before the halftime buzzer when George Lynch's 18-foot, over-the-shoulder flip banked in, giving North Carolina a 31-25 lead.
"I think that shot by Lynch sort of stunned us," said Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson.
By the time the 13th-ranked Crimson Tide came out of its funk in the second half, North Carolina was ahead by as many as 11 points twice. Just as it seemed Alabama was going to make a run, senior forward Robert Horry was hit with a technical foul.
It came with 5:32 remaining and North Carolina ahead 47-40. Horry missed a 15-foot jumper and complained to referee Tom Lopes about not getting a foul call. Horry and North Carolina center Eric Montross, who had exchanged elbows earlier, then bumped. The foul put Alabama over the limit.
"I told the ref to call it both ways," said Horry, who had a six-of-15 afternoon. "I guess he was tired of me running off at the mouth. It had a big impact."
Montross, who played smartly after picking up his third personal early in the second half, made both free throws. Hubert Davis, who, a few minutes before had limped off after respraining his right ankle, walked gingerly back on and made a pair. It pushed North Carolina in front by 11, and Alabama began another long climb back into the game.
Finally, with a little more than two minutes remaining, the shots began to fall for the Crimson Tide. Sophomore guard James Robinson, who led Alabama with a game-high 22 points, hit three straight shots and helped chop North Carolina's lead to 57-52 with 1:39 to go.
"I thought we needed to make a couple of more shots and hold them, but we didn't do it," said Sanderson.
The Tar Heels kept going to the free-throw line and made 10 of 15 shots down the stretch. Even when North Carolina missed, Montross or Lynch would tip the ball out, helping run out the clock.
Then, as the Crimson Tide tried for a steal with less than a minute left, Pat Sullivan found Lynch wide-open under the basket for a dunk that brought the score to 63-55. Fifty-five seconds later, the Tar Heels were headed back to the Sweet 16. They will play Ohio State at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Friday.
"I thought they did an excellent job with their defensive effort," said Alabama forward Latrell Sprewell, who missed 13 of 15 shots and was held to five points. "We had some shots we normally make. It was a combination of those things."
There are a number of concerns for Smith and his team to ponder. Of foremost concern is Davis' ankle. And there were all those turnovers.
Yet the season, and Smith's streak of Sweet 16 appearances, continues. As do the questions. Are the Tar Heels the team that got blasted by 20 by Duke in the ACC tournament final and narrowly beat Miami, or are they the team that shut down the Crimson Tide yesterday?