GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The rookie coach and the veteran team pulled another one out of the NCAA tournament fire last night. North Carolina took Connecticut's best shot -- three times, no less -- and replied in kind every time.
The Tar Heels had an answer for Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin. They had an answer for Connecticut's functional 2-3 defense and its frenetic pressing defense. They had an answer for every UConn run.
As a result, North Carolina (34-3) passed this East Regional championship test with an inspired 75-64 victory over the relentless Huskies (32-5) before 23,235 at Greensboro Coliseum.
The Tar Heels' reward is a return to the Final Four next week, when they'll face Utah in the national semifinals in San Antonio. Utah's shocking 76-51 upset of Arizona deprived North Carolina of a rematch with the defending NCAA champions.
"Disappointed? Not really," Carolina All-American Antawn Jamison said with a shrug about missing the Wildcats. "It doesn't matter who we play. We have one goal, to win the national championship. It would have been nice to play them, but now we'll play Utah."
If you learn anything from watching the Tar Heels in this year's Final Four run, it is that they can match their uncommon talent with an uncommon determination.
They were seemingly on the verge of a blowout most of the game, only to watch Connecticut climb back into the game.
North Carolina had a nine-point lead in the first half whittled to one. It had an 11-point lead early in the second half cut to two. It had a 10-point lead with nine minutes left trimmed to one.
The Tar Heels wobbled, but never fell.
"The question isn't what Connecticut didn't do," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun after his third loss in a regional final. "It's what Carolina did do. They showed a terrific, terrific backdoor move. Okulaja hit two key shots that turned the game around. I think they're the best team in the country, and they showed that tonight."
North Carolina won because Ademola Okulaja, locked in a shooting slump, hit two critical three-pointers early in the second half. It won because Vince Carter, aside from uncorking a sensational, 360-degree breakaway dunk, helped send Hamilton, UConn's top scorer, into a 5-for-21 funk. It won because Jamison persevered with his fifth straight double double (20 points, 11 rebounds).
It won because it was too good, too seasoned, too smart to lose.
When the game's final turning point arrived, El-Amin (24 points, 10-for-16) had just hit a running one-hander, then converted a foul shot to draw Connecticut within 59-58. There was 5: 37 left.
The impossible seemed plausible: Two No. 1 seeds could fall on the same day.
Well, not really.
Hamilton, who suffered a thigh contusion early in the second half on a nasty fall under the basket, missed a three-pointer for the lead. In a fast break, Carter offered a delicious feed to Jamison for a dunk: 61-58.
El-Amin missed a jumper. At the other end, Jamison cashed in a miss by Shammond Williams: 63-58.
Next, UConn's Jake Voskuhl was whistled for a walk. At the other end, Jamison served up a pass that Ed Cota turned into a layup: 65-58.
The lead went to 67-60 when Cota made the defensive play that effectively put UConn away for the season. Guarding Ricky Moore, Cota swiped a pass at point-blank range, and moments later, Williams scored a layup: 69-60.
Carolina's experience -- the Tar Heels had two years in average age on the Huskies -- appeared to make a difference down the stretch.
"When we cut the lead to one, we were very excited and antsy," said El-Amin, a freshman wise beyond his years. "I guess we showed our age right there. We didn't execute the best we can execute. They went on another run, and that was the key to the game."
Calhoun agreed with that analysis.
"The best shot for us -- because we weren't shooting well -- was the fast break," he said. "We should've continued that. We didn't, they did."
North Carolina's 34th win of the season made rookie coach Bill Guthridge the winningest first-year Division I coach in history, surpassing Bill Hodges, who went 33-1 with Indiana State and Larry Bird in 1979.
It also tied the school record, accomplished first by the 1992-93 national championship team.
And it secured Carolina's fifth Final Four in the 1990s.
Guthridge was unflappable as always in the aftermath, even in cutting his first regional net as a head coach.
"It really feels the same," said the longtime assistant. "I've been .. so excited since I've been here. I cut the net in the ACC tournament and it was a great thrill. It always has been."
San Antonio's nets await.
CONNECTICUT -- Freeman 3-6 4-4 10, Hamilton 5-21 0-0 15, Voskuhl 3-4 0-1 6, Moore 0-3 1-3 1, El-Amin 10-16 1-1 24, Wane 1-3 0-0 2, Jones 0-1 0-0 0, Hardnett 1-4 4-6 6, Klaiber 0-0 0-0 0, Mouring 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-58 10-15 64.
NORTH CAROLINA -- Jamison 9-19 2-4 20, Carter 5-9 1-1 12, Ndiaye 2-3 0-0 4, Sh.Williams 6-16 6-6 19, Cota 4-8 0-0 8, Okulaja 5-8 0-0 12, Haywood 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-63 9-11 75.
Halftime--N.C., 36-32. 3-point goals--Conn. 8-24 (Hamilton 5-14, Al-Amin 3-7, Hardnett 0-1, Moore 0-2), N.C. 4-14 (Okulaja 2-3, Carter 1-2, Sh.Williams 1-7, Jamison 0-1, Cota 0-1). Rebounds--Conn. 30 (Freeman 7), N.C. 39 (Jamison 11). Assists--Conn. 11 (Hardnett 4), N.C. 17 (Cota 9). Total fouls--Conn. 14, N.C. 10. A--23,235.
Pub Date: 3/22/98