Cota completes UNC turnaround Freshman: Guard Ed Cota had to overcome his personal problems before he could help North Carolina overcome an 0-3 start in the ACC to advance to this weekend's Final Four.

March 26, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Ed Cota came to North Carolina with all the standard equipment.

There was a confidence weaned from the playgrounds of Brooklyn, N.Y. There was a floor game polished at a Connecticut prep school.

There was the fashionable high dribble that he had seen in other guards he had played against and the trendy tattoos on his shoulders.

All visible characteristics that Cota will take to Indianapolis this week when the Tar Heels play Arizona in the Final Four.

But it was the baggage you couldn't see that set Cota apart, that in a way defined who he was.

When he was attending school in Brooklyn six years ago, his mother and stepfather were injured in a car accident while visiting relatives in Panama. The stepfather, George Cedeno, was paralyzed from the waist down. His mother, Cecilia Cota, had serious hip and leg injuries that required 12 surgeries and ultimately a hip replacement.

When Cota's sister, Wendy, went to Panama to care for the parents, Ed was left behind with a grandmother, left to cope with the numbing reality of the situation. He did not cope well.

Cota stopped going to school. His high school coach enlisted the help of a clinical psychologist who said Cota was suffering from emotional shock.

It took time, guidance from Eric Eisenberg, the coach, and the return of his parents to get him back on track. Cecilia came home a year after the accident; George two years.

"It was a tragic part of my life," Ed said the other day in Syracuse, N.Y., where his mother had come to watch Carolina win the East Regional.

"I feel great having my family here, especially my mom. My family and coaches from the past are inspirations for me. They're one of the reasons I'm here now."

Eight weeks before his 21st birthday, Cota is a freshman point guard on a Final Four team. He is a star, but not a starter. And he is one of the reasons the Tar Heels were able to turn around an 0-3 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference to reach the national semifinals.

Not coincidentally, the Tar Heels didn't hit their stride until Cota got a bigger role and more minutes running the offense.

That fact is underscored by these numbers:

In the first half of the ACC season, when the Tar Heels went 3-5, Cota contributed 4.4 points, 5.5 assists and 4.4 turnovers a game while shooting 38.7 percent.

In the second half, when Carolina went 8-0 and launched its current 16-game winning streak, he averaged 9.6 points, 8 assists, 3.3 turnovers and 53.7 percent shooting.

With a total of 230 assists, Cota is five away from Carolina's single-season record, held by Kenny Smith. Cota's average of 7.0 assists per game is tied with Phil Ford, now an assistant, for the school's best ever.

"I think Cota is an excellent player," Louisville coach Denny Crum said after Cota helped banish the Cardinals in the East final. "He's a real good ball-handler and passer. He hits the open shot. And he complements [off-guard Shammond] Williams real well."

Cota was named the ACC Rookie of the Year this season -- the first Tar Heel so honored in a decade -- and in Syracuse he was chosen to the All-East Regional team, even though he doesn't start.

But he usually does finish. When crunch time comes, Cota is running the offense. When Cal tied Carolina in their regional semifinal, it was Cota who tossed the alley-oop pass to Vince Carter for the tie-breaking dunk. And when Louisville made a big second-half run at Carolina, it was Cota's long pass that ended with a Carter layup to stem the tide.

Penetrating, passing, pushing the ball up the court. Those are the things Cota likes to do. Those are the things the Tar Heels weren't doing when they were 0-3.

"At that time, we weren't moving the ball around," he said. "I never had a chance to get the ball as much as I get now to try and create things. When the second half of the ACC season began, my teammates started throwing the ball back to me.

"That was the turnaround."

Cota had played on winning teams at Tilden High in Brooklyn and St. Thomas More Academy in Oakdale, Conn., and he came to Carolina to play on another. But when the Tar Heels sank to 0-3, he started wondering where it all would lead.

"I wasn't scared, but I felt we might be in position to be the worst team to play under Coach [Dean] Smith in the ACC," he said.

"At that time, I thought we might not make the [NCAA] tournament. I thought we might be playing in the NIT and I might be playing at home.

"I think I'm a lucky guy. I'm used to being in position to win championships. Early in the year we were struggling and I thought it might be a losing season for me. But here I am again, with a chance to get another championship."

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