'Concession' lets N.C. end L'ville rally

March 24, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Dean Smith became the winningest coach in college basketball history for more than his game strategies. Yesterday, the North Carolina icon showed he can be a pretty fair amateur psychologist when the situation calls for it.

And the situation at the Carrier Dome was dire. Carolina's 21-point halftime lead in the East Regional championship game had all but dissolved in a torrid Louisville run. Looking to jolt his team out of its lethargy, Smith delivered an impromptu concession speech during a TV timeout with 7: 38 to play.

"I said they [the Cardinals] could catch up and win, and [if that happened] we've had a great season," Smith said later.

In the huddle, Ademola Okulaja screamed, as if to blot out the thought. A disbelieving Vince Carter grew resolute. Then, the re-awakened Tar Heels finished in a rush to claim their fourth Final Four berth in seven years.

Carolina's 97-74 rout was Smith's answer to neuroscience, the trendy mental gymnastics that Louisville used to retool the thought processes of some struggling players last week.

The Tar Heels (28-6) will take a 16-game winning streak into the national semifinals next Saturday in Indianapolis against Arizona, which survived Providence in overtime to win the Southeast Region, 96-92.

"I am delighted to win the East Regional over a gutty, courageous Louisville team," Smith said after locking up his 11th Final Four bid and 65th NCAA tournament victory.

Carolina was clinging to a 72-66 lead when Smith stunned his players with his somber pronouncement during the TV timeout.

"Everybody had a different thought in their head," said Carter. "I said, 'No way, I'm not going down that way.' "

Carter did his part. Once Louisville cut its deficit to three, at 69-66, the 6-foot-6 sophomore scored five straight points, the first two on a driving layup.

Just like that, Louisville's 33-15 second-half run to get back in the game was blunted. The Cardinals (26-9) missed their next nine shots, went scoreless for 4: 45, and fell behind by 15, 81-66. Game, set, match.

"The kids played so hard for such a long period of time, they just got tired," said Louisville coach Denny Crum. "Without DeJuan to make the three-pointers he usually makes, we just ran out of gas."

Not surprisingly, DeJuan Wheat made his 136th consecutive start for Louisville despite a severely sprained left ankle. He gave the Cardinals a gritty 32 minutes on one leg, but the school's all-time leader in three-point shooting was ineffectual on offense. He hit just two of 11 three-pointers to finish with six points and eight assists.

"I think he played very well for how much pain he was in," said teammate B. J. Flynn, whose three-point bombs inspired Louisville's belated rally.

Carolina played to Louisville's weaknesses, forcing the poor-shooting Cardinals to the perimeter with a 2-3 zone defense.

The Tar Heels also were able to take advantage of their height advantage inside, where Louisville's tallest regular was 6-7.

"I think North Carolina was the toughest team we played all year," said Flynn. "They only go six deep, but they're six quality players. They're very hard to defense. They're big, quick and they shoot well."

Crum seconded that thought.

"They don't have a lot of depth, but you're not talking about a season, you're talking about one game," he said. "Their kids are in great shape. They could very well win it all. The only other team we played that has that kind of talent is Kentucky."

Led by Shammond Williams, the Tar Heels had six players in double figures. Williams scored 17 of his game-high 22 points in the second half to collect the East Region's Most Outstanding Player award.

Carter finished with 18 points and Antawn Jamison added 15 despite back problems that sent him to the locker room two minutes before the first half ended.

As usual, freshman Ed Cota came off the bench to superbly direct the Carolina offense. He had 13 points, nine assists and three steals in 29 minutes.

"When they cut it to three," Cota said of Louisville's comeback, "I think they got tired. We started pushing the ball up and getting easy baskets.

"Playing in that zone got us too comfortable. We like a challenge."

They got one from Smith, who has resurrected a Final Four team from the ashes of an 0-3 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Is this a special group, he was asked?

"I would say that," Smith said. "Of course, we've had a lot of special groups. As one of the most surprised men in the locker room after our February wins, it says something about [his players'] confidence.

"As a coach, you see all the weaknesses we have, and you say you're surprised when we win. They're a confident group, sometimes without reason."

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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