Long shots N.C., Fla. net berths

8th seed Carolina rides Forte's 28 to Indy, denying Tulsa, 59-55

First 4-game win streak

Maligned Guthridge's belief is rewarded

March 27, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

AUSTIN, Texas -- Weber State memorabilia became a peculiarly hot item on Tobacco Road in the past year. It was a way for the ABC crowd -- Anybody But Carolina -- to taunt the Tar Heels about their embarrassing exit from the first round of the 1999 NCAA tournament.

North Carolina will get its revenge with brag shirts from the RCA Dome.

The Tar Heels are headed to Indianapolis, for a record 15th Final Four. Stern defense and freshman Joe Forte's 28 points lifted them past Tulsa, 59-55, in the South Regional final at the Erwin Center yesterday, as eighth-seeded North Carolina picked a grand moment to put together its first four-game win streak of the season.

"We weren't expected to go this year," coach Bill Guthridge said. "We're thrilled. I've had a lot of faith in this team all year. I'm sorry we couldn't have got it going earlier, but it couldn't have happened at a better time. I believed, and the team believed. That's why we're going."

Along with Wisconsin, the Tar Heels (22-13) will give the Final Four its first 13-time losers. Disguised as Cinderella, North Carolina will meet East champion Florida in Saturday's second semifinal.

It will be the third trip to the Final Four for senior point guard Ed Cota, but the first for Forte, the splendid 6-foot-4 guard who played his high school ball at DeMatha in Hyattsville. Voted the regional's Most Outstanding Player, he accounted for nearly half of North Carolina's points, as he made nine of his 10 shots inside the three-point arc and was 7-for-8 at the free-throw line.

"He's probably the best freshman in the land," Tulsa coach Bill Self said. "We had trouble matching up with them, and their size kept us from putting our best defender on Forte. But their offense did not beat us. It was our inability to put the ball into the basket."

After North Carolina lost to Wake Forest in the Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals 17 days ago, the Tar Heels came into the NCAA tournament on a 7-9 skid and with the reputation as a bunch of underachievers who weren't committed to defending.

Self said that the Tar Heels "look like they're playing with greater passion," after seventh-seeded Tulsa (32-5) was saddled with four season lows: 55 points; 37.3 percent shooting from the field; nine free throws attempted and six made.

The Golden Hurricane missed its first eight shots after the break, and 16 of its first 20 in the second half. Both teams had hit an offensive wall, but Dante Swanson's transition basket got them a tie with 9: 05 left.

Tulsa remained stuck on 41, while North Carolina broke clear with a 10-0 run that featured six points by Forte.

The larger Tar Heels got the slower tempo they wanted and frustrated the Golden Hurricane with an assortment of zones. Smaller Tulsa was hampered by early foul trouble to center Brandon Kurtz and power forward Eric Coley, and it didn't attempt a free throw in the final 16 minutes. Self rolled his eyes when asked about his team's inability to get to the line.

"We tried to attack the basket, but North Carolina is so big and long," Self said. "Their big men must have done a good job of going straight up to defend."

Forte's short jumper from the right baseline had the Tar Heels on top 53-43 with less than five minutes remaining, but then Cota twice coughed up the ball up to Swanson. His second breakaway basket in a minute trimmed the difference to 55-52 with 1: 05 left.

With Carolina down to four seconds on the shot clock, a Cota pass was kicked by Swanson, and North Carolina got a fresh 35 with 26.7 seconds left. Brendan Haywood set a 7-foot screen for Forte, who took the inbounds pass and was fouled. He made both free throws, but Swanson, a freshman who led Tulsa with 15 points, came back with a three-pointer.

Cota made one of two free throws for a 58-55 lead, giving Tulsa one last chance to tie. David Shelton panicked and took an errant attempt on the right side. He had a foot on the three-point line anyway, and North Carolina's most improbable visit to college basketball's showcase was secure.

The past five days have been an emotional roller coaster for Guthridge. His mother died Wednesday, and shortly after the net-cutting ceremony, he traveled to Parsons, Kan., to attend her funeral today.

Guthridge had been under fire since January for North Carolina's occasionally listless play, but this is not your standard Tar Heels juggernaut.

When Kris Lang went down in the second minute with a sprained right ankle, he was replaced by Julius Peppers, who was a defensive end for the football team when basketball season began. Peppers played a season-high 30 minutes.

Cota has sat one minute of the NCAA tournament. Tulsa denied him the ball for most of the second half, but that strategy placed it in the hands of Forte.

The ACC Rookie of the Year was the only Tar Heel to reach double figures, and he had eight rebounds, as many as Haywood and Peppers. He also had four turnovers, but delightfully heaved the game ball into the North Carolina cheering section at the end.

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