No. 3 N.C. turns back Louisville Guthridge still unbeaten as Heels' head coach, 81-72

December 04, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- The bench still looks a little empty without the game's all-time winningest coach sitting on it. And Bill Guthridge still looks as if he's feeling his way in replacing a legend named Dean Smith. But the North Carolina Tar Heels have been making things relatively easy for their new head coach.

Having won their first six games by an average of 26 points and being challenged only once, the third-ranked Tar Heels appeared to be on their way to another runaway victory against Louisville in the Great Eight Basketball Classic last night at the United Center.

Appearances were deceiving. North Carolina wound up winning, 81-72, but not without a struggle. After scoring 18 of the game's first 22 points and building a 16-point lead later in the first half, the Tar Heels allowed the Cardinals to hang around and give them a scare.

"We have a way of taking things for granted," said senior guard Shammond Williams, who led the Tar Heels with 22 points and six assists. "Sometimes you think just having the name North Carolina is all you have to do to win a game."

Said Guthridge: "I think getting off to such a good start was a detriment to us. Maybe we started thinking we're going to blow this team out."

And why not? The Tar Heels had blown out teams that were as overmatched as Middle Tennessee State (84-46) and as overrated as UCLA (109-68). And just when things looked as if they were going to get out of hand again, Louisville (2-2) made it more than a little interesting.

The Cardinals cut their deficit to 46-44 with 15: 44 to go. After North Carolina stretched its lead back to 65-54, Louisville closed to three points twice, the second time at 73-70 with 3: 24, left before the Tar Heels ran off the game's next eight points.

"Considering some of the injuries we had, I thought we played pretty well," said Louisville coach Denny Crum, who starts only one senior and saw his most talented freshman, guard Marques Mabin, go out when he reinjured his back after making a dunk in the first half.

As for the Tar Heels, Crum said, "That team can be as good as any team in the country."

Smith left his longtime assistant with plenty of talent, returning the top six players from last season's team that reached the semifinals of the NCAA tournament while adding Brendan Haywood, a 6-foot-11, 265-pound freshman, to the rotation.

The Tar Heels have enough ability that Guthridge has found it difficult to determine his starting lineup. Instead of using Smith's method of grading players defensively both in games and practice, Guthridge used a more democratic process.

He rotates them in alphabetical order. "I don't think it's a big deal," said Guthridge, who didn't start junior Vince Carter last night.

Guthridge, who signed a five-year contract after initially being named the team's interim coach, has not changed his approach much since his three decades as an assistant. He always had the support of his players since he was named, but now he has their confidence as well.

"He can make Dean Smith-like decisions to help us win," Carter said. "The most important thing we can do is play well. That will take a lot of pressure off him."

Guthridge, 61, still talks to his former boss, who maintains an office in the building that bears his name. But Smith has kept himself busy enough with speaking engagements and a steady golf game to give Guthridge some much needed space.

"I think he's going to make a great ex-coach," Guthridge said jokingly.

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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