EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If North Carolina is going to cut down any nets, it's going to happen in New Orleans.
After surviving Cincinnati, a blown dunk by Brian Reese at the end of regulation and an anticlimactic overtime for a 75-68 win in the North Carolina 75, Cincinnati 68
NCAA East Regional final at the Meadowlands yesterday, the Tar Heels told the maintenance men to put away the ladders.
Top-seeded North Carolina has had a photo of the Superdome posted in its locker room on game days this year, and there won't be any celebrations unless it wins two more games in New Orleans, the site of coach Dean Smith's only NCAA title, in 1982. He'll be matched against former assistant coach Roy Williams when North Carolina meets Kansas in Saturday's semifinals.
"We're waiting for New Orleans before we cut down any nets," center Eric Montross said. "On the one hand, you'd like to cut them down in case we don't keep winning, but why be satisfied doing it here?"
Montross was at the heart of the nation's most celebrated freshman class two years ago, but the holdovers from a 1991 trip to the Final Four have radically different expectations this time.
The 7-footer was one of the many familiar weapons at Smith's disposal, as the bigger, deeper Tar Heels (32-4) wore down the second-seeded Bearcats (27-5). Montross stared down Corie Blount in the pivot, George Lynch outplayed Erik Martin on the baseline and guard Donald Williams was the late-game hero for the second time in three nights, scoring eight of North Carolina's last 13 points.
Most important, point guard Derrick Phelps began to lean on Nick Van Exel, the trash-talking Cincinnati slinger who backed up his boasts in the first half.
When Van Exel dropped in his sixth three-pointer with 14:50 gone in the first half, the Bearcats had a 33-20 lead, and, with 21 points, he had outscored the Tar Heels. On Saturday, Van Exel didn't accord Smith the respect North Carolina players felt he was due. Seems that he said the Tar Heels won because of players and not Smith's system, but the coach adjusted.
"In that first timeout, I told the team to just go back to regular pressure," Smith said, "but I whispered to Derrick not to leave Van Exel."
Said Phelps: "When he [Van Exel] was hitting, we weren't playing man-to-man. I was trapping, trying to help double-team other people, but Coach Smith said to just stick on him, let the other guys worry about the traps. I think he got real tired. Every time he touched the ball, I was on him."
Van Exel had one basket during the final 30 minutes, and, after four assists in the first eight minutes of the second half, he was rendered useless at the offensive end. With backcourt partner Allen Jackson out with a knee injury from a first-round game against Coppin State, Van Exel didn't get enough help. Besides Van Exel's 23 points, Martin had 16 and Tarrance Gibson 13.
"Nick's not going to get 50 against them," said Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, who vowed to shave his head if the Bearcats got back to the Final Four. "Our other people have to do something. In the second half, we made a couple of bad decisions against their zone."
For all the talk of Arkansas' pressure and Cincinnati's running traps, it was those teams that succumbed to North Carolina's defensive work. Van Exel finished 8-for-24 from the field, 1-for-10 in the second half and overtime, and Cincinnati shot 37.1 percent (26-for-70).
"Our defense is what got us here," Montross said. "People may not talk about it, but it's always a constant at Carolina."
North Carolina wasn't exactly in a celebratory mood after wasting several opportunities to win in regulation. The Tar Heels came back from that early, 13-point hole and a 57-52 deficit with 11 minutes left to lead 66-62 on two free throws by Reese with 1:44 left, but Cincinnati revived the pressure that got it within one win of its second straight trip to the Final Four.
After Martin hit two free throws, Phelps and Montross couldn't get off shots, and Gibson's breakaway layup tied it with 35.4 seconds left.
Reese missed a foul-line jumper and Lynch the follow, but North Carolina had possession when the latter's miss went out of bounds with .8 of a second left. Montross threw a nasty screen that freed Reese, but an open dunk opportunity that seemed to take two seconds clanged out.
Blount, who missed nearly eight minutes in the second half after his fourth foul and was held to eight points, opened the overtime with a 10-footer from the left baseline, but the Bearcats missed their last eight shots and didn't score again. Lynch tied it, and Williams dropped in three-pointers from the left wing and top of the key to end Cincinnati's run.
Smith, who will be making the ninth Final Four appearance of a 32-year coaching career, said he is ready for the pupil-teacher story line of him and Roy Williams. It's not as if any of his players will dominate the hype, because, as Smith said, the Tar Heels don't have a go-to guy.
Lynch, the only senior starter and the Most Outstanding Player in the regional, had 21 points and a game-high 14 rebounds and six steals. Donald Williams had five points in the first half, but ended with 20 after seeing that improvisation, and not another bounce pass, would beat the Bearcats, who weren't letting the Tar Heels get inside. Montross nonetheless had 15 points and seven rebounds.
Phelps? The junior point guard, bruised and battered in the ACC final and then in practice, didn't have a basket, but he had his standard seven assists, and the biggest defensive performance of his career.
"Derrick Phelps is a great defensive player," Smith said. "We couldn't have beaten either team here without him."