In showing their vulnerability, Heels take step to invincibility

March 15, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

HARTFORD, Conn. -- You can look at this one of two ways: Either North Carolina is vulnerable, or North Carolina is invincible.

Yesterday's 93-83 overtime victory against North Carolina-Charlotte seemed to indicate the former.

In reality, it probably was proof of the latter.

Oh, the Tar Heels still might lose in this wacky NCAA tournament, but now the East Regional moves to the friendly confines of Greensboro, N.C.

UNC's first opponent, No. 4 seed Michigan State, had only one player score in double figures against Princeton. Its likely second opponent, No. 2 seed Connecticut, has never been to a Final Four.

Both teams were impressive yesterday, Michigan State with the way it stifled Princeton, Connecticut with the way it pulled away from Indiana.

But lots of luck -- they're headed to Lambeau Field in January.

"You trying to ruin my good day or something?" Michigan State coach Tom Izzo asked.

No, coach, but the Tar Heels' next scare might not be until the national semifinal in San Antonio.

You know, against Maryland.

"Jim Valvano always used to say, 'survive and advance, survive and advance,' " Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said. "We survived today."

4 They survived, and now, the worst might be over.

Eventual national champions often struggle in their early games: Arizona got a first-round scare from South Alabama last year; UCLA needed Tyus Edney's coast-to-coast heroics to win its second-round game against Missouri three years ago.

Still, why put so much faith in a No. 1 seed that struggled to beat a Conference USA opponent that lost to Boston University and )) Appalachian State in December?

Because UNC-Charlotte had the special motivation of its first-ever meeting with snooty Carolina.

Because Guthridge wasn't simply pulling a Dean Smith when he described the 49ers as "the best eight seed I've ever seen."

And because Carolina did what it always does, finding ways to win even on a day when Ed Cota was ill and Antawn Jamison was off.

Vulnerable or invincible?

The Tar Heels hit their last 17 free throws, scored on 12 of their last 13 possessions and produced 19 points in five minutes of overtime.

"None of us were ready to go home," Vince Carter said.

Heck, the game might never even have gone into OT if not for a colossal blunder by referee Tom Harrington.

Rather than send Jamison to the line with 1.4 seconds left, Harrington ruled that he had blown an inadvertent whistle, and awarded the ball to UNC-Charlotte.

The 49ers had tied the score on a miracle three-pointer by freshman Diego Guevara with 2.9 seconds left. But they failed to get off a final shot, then failed to outscore Shammond Williams in overtime.

Williams finished with 32 points, nine in OT. His total was the highest by a Tar Heel in the NCAA tournament since Al Wood scored 39 in the 1981 national semifinal. Yet, he took only two shots -- two! -- in the final 15: 33 of the second half.

Jamison was just as invisible, producing only one second-half TTC basket. Cota, "playing on empty" in Guthridge's estimation, did not hit a shot the entire game.

Yet, even with all that, the Tar Heels never trailed after taking the lead with a 12-0 run to start the second half.

True, they blew a six-point advantage with 3: 07 left. But the game never seemed out of their control, even with the crowd of 16,105 howling for an upset.

Vulnerable or invincible?

Carter scored a season-high 24 points, hitting seven of his nine shots after halftime.

Vulnerable or invincible?

Ademola Okulaja scored all 10 of his points in the second half, hitting a three-pointer and converting a three-point play on back-to-back possessions in the final five minutes of regulation.

Even Makhtar Ndiaye played an important second-half role, providing interior defense until almost the end of regulation after picking up his fourth foul with 16: 54 left.

And then there was Cota, who scored his only points on two free throws with 28.4 seconds left in regulation, giving the Tar Heels a three-point cushion.

"We're a veteran team," Guthridge said. "They've done that time and time again. We've come to expect it."

UNC-Charlotte coach Melvin Watkins said he, too, expected to win, but his best player (DeMarco Johnson), twisted his knee early in the second half, and his top defender (Galen Young) fouled out with 1: 05 left in regulation.

"We wore down," Watkins said. "Our execution kind of fell off at the end. I walked into the locker room after the game and I couldn't get on anyone, because I thought the kids gave us all they had."

Indeed, the 49ers were downright gallant in defeat, out-rebounding Carolina, 43-35, holding Jamison to 15 points in regulation, getting the dramatic off-balance three from Guevara to send the game into OT.

It wasn't enough. It's never enough.

The Tar Heels are 4-1 in overtime this season, with their only loss coming at Maryland. They avenged each of their three defeats in the ACC tournament. They're headed to the Sweet 16 for the 16th time in the last 18 years.

Vulnerable or invincible?

Stick with the latter.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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