Carolina keeping its focus Fairfield game serves as 1st-round reminder

March 12, 1998|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

HARTFORD, Conn. -- If there is any fear that his top-ranked Tar Heels might trip over their press clippings in today's opening round of the NCAA East Regional against 16th-seeded Navy, a 28-point underdog, North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge needs to mention only one word: Fairfield.

It was in this same situation last year that the Tar Heels found themselves in an unexpected dogfight with Fairfield. The Stags, packing in their defense to neutralize Antawn Jamison and forcing North Carolina to score from the perimeter, were in contention until the closing minutes before the Tar Heels squeaked by, 82-74.

"I hope we're a little bit more mature this year," said Guthridge, who served 30 years as Dean Smith's assistant before finally getting the head-coaching job.

"Obviously, our upperclassmen are aware of what happened last year. It seems there is a natural letdown because winning an ACC title is such a high. But I think this team is a lot more mature."

Added Jamison: "We didn't think we'd lose to Fairfield, but we were kind of shocked. That's why our concentration will be a lot better this time."

Matchups between the Heels and Midshipmen seem almost ludicrous on paper.

North Carolina boasts the player of the year in Jamison (22.9 points, 10.2 rebounds) who, if he opts for the pros over spending his senior year at Chapel Hill, is certain to be the NBA's No. 1 draft pick.

"Jamison reminds me of Dale Ellis when I was coaching at Tennessee in the 80s," said Navy coach Don DeVoe of his own gift to the NBA. "Jamison just glides around the floor and makes the game look so easy. But when he has to, he just turns on the jets and flies by his man. You can't hope to stop him. You just try to contain him."

Navy will counter with over-achieving 6-3 senior co-captain Hassan Booker, who regularly gives up five to six inches to rival forwards.

"I just hope the officials let me play my game," said Booker, who was constantly in foul trouble in the Patriot League tournament. "I don't mind catching an elbow as long as I can play the same way."

The Tar Heels boast three more All-ACC picks in small forward Vince Carter and guards Shammond Williams and Ed Cota.

DeVoe will have his best defender, junior Skip Victor, tracking Williams (16.5), who made 75 three-pointers this season. Senior Matt Sladky, a heady forward whose father is a high school coach, will try to keep the slashing Carter (15.2) out of the lane.

The quickness of Cota, possibly the best point guard in the country save for Arizona's Mike Bibby, will present a problem for Navy scoring leader Michael Heary, a 6-5 playmaker by necessity.

"We don't have any superstars like North Carolina," said DeVoe. "But we have a lot of good athletes and a deep bench."

That is DeVoe's best hope of neutralizing the Tar Heels. Guthridge seldom goes more than seven men deep on his roster, with Makhtar Ndiaye and Ademola Okulaja alternating up front and 7-foot freshman Brendan Haywood getting some meaningful minutes.

Two reserves DeVoe is certain to use are rugged sophomore forward Sitapha Savane, who has strong post-up moves and will battle the taller Heels on the boards, and freshman swingman Chris Williams, Navy's best athlete, who can create his own shot.

But North Carolina, which lost to eventual champion Arizona in the Final Four last year, is a team on a mission. Its only three losses came against ACC rivals Duke, North Carolina State and Maryland, and were all avenged.

"Last year, we had real high expectations, but fell a little short," said Jamison. "We're a better team this year, and we're determined to bring home a title."

Added Guthridge, sounding more emotional than mentor Smith: "I love this team. I'd go to war with them anytime."

Navy vs. UNC

What: NCAA tournament East Regional, first round

Where: Hartford, Conn.

When: Today, 12: 20 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: North Carolina by 28

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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