Saved from the Gutter
Once-dead UNC headed to 6th Final Four in 10 years
Posted: Sunday March 26, 2000 10:31 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Well, look at North Carolina now: The supposedly misguided team that some said didn't deserve to even be in the NCAA tournament is headed to the Final Four, led by a coach who suddenly seems like a genius.
College basketball's least likely underdog capped its stunning turnaround by beating Tulsa 59-55 on Sunday in the South Regional final to advance to the Final Four for a record-tying 15th time.
Joseph Forte, the first freshman to ever lead North Carolina in scoring, paved the way by scoring 10 of his season-high 28 points during a 14-4 second-half spurt that broke open a tie game, then sealed the victory by sinking a foul shot with 4.1 seconds left.
"It took us a while to find each other this season," said senior guard Ed Cota, who has reached his third Final Four in four years. "The teams I was on here before knew how to win. This team found it late, but we couldn't have picked a better time."
Players piled on each other at midcourt, then Forte emerged with the game ball and hurled it into the stands. Standing nearby watching it all with a big smile was coach Bill Guthridge, who is headed to Kansas for his mother's funeral Monday.
"Obviously, since we were an eighth seed, this was unexpected," said Guthridge, Dean Smith's longtime top assistant and hand-picked successor who heard critics calling for his job two weeks ago. "But I believed and the team believed and that's why we're going."
The Tar Heels (22-13) came into the tournament having lost four of six. They 7-8 since a mid-January swoon knocked them out of the poll for the first time in a decade, a dramatic drop for a team that was No. 2 in late November.
Now North Carolina is riding a season-best four-game winning streak that includes victories over the South's top seed, Stanford, and fourth-seeded Tennessee. The Tar Heels join West champion Wisconsin as the first No. 8 seeds in the Final Four since Villanova won it all in 1985.
North Carolina will play the Florida-Oklahoma State winner in the national semifinals.
"I'm proud of the team," Guthridge said. "They've been through some tough times and they've kept me up. This is a thrill you never get tired of."
Tulsa (32-5) didn't go down easily. The tough defense that has been the Golden Hurricane's trademark kept them in it even when leading scorer David Shelton and emotional leader Eric Coley were in foul trouble, then again when they opened the second half missing eight straight shots.
Even after the Forte-led run put North Carolina up by 10, never-say-die Tulsa challenged again. Freshman Dante Swanson scored six straight points in the final two minutes to make it 57-55 with 21 seconds left.
Coley was gone after fouling Cota on the inbounds pass, and he hit one of two free throws to make it 58-55. Shelton took a wild 3-pointer with eight seconds left that would have tied it, but missed badly.
"It wasn't drawn up like that," said Shelton, whose 1-for-9 outing epitomized Tulsa's poor shooting. "But they didn't switch and I just tried to make a play because we didn't have much time."
Forte grabbed the rebound and was fouled. As the teams walked to the other end of the court, 7-footer Brendan Haywood held his massive arms straight up and waved to the crowd. Forte drew more cheers by making the game's final point.
Tulsa ended the greatest season in its history, having set a school record for wins and advancing its farthest in 12 NCAA appearances. The Golden Hurricane's previous four losses had been by a combined seven points, none by more than three.
"It's a sweet feeling because of all the goals we've met," Coley said. "But sometimes you're going to lose. It's tough as a senior, but I hope the other guys got a taste of it and will be back here next year."
Swanson hit 6-of-8 shots and led Tulsa with 15 points. Marcus Hill and Brandon Kurtz each scored 11.
North Carolina was much bigger than Tulsa, but the Golden Hurricane were a lot faster. That balance kept things close.
Tulsa played tight man-to-man defense and often had two guys defending the ball. Wide-open shots were few and far between for the Tar Heels, but with patient, good shot selection they made 44 percent.
North Carolina's defense ended up being the difference. Guthridge switched between man and zone, and was able to prevent Tulsa from getting into a rhythm. The Golden Hurricane shot a season-low 37 percent.
"They were much quicker on us, so we wanted to switch it up just to throw them off," Cota said.
Forte's big boost began with a jumper that made it 41-39. Fellow freshman Julius Peppers made two free throws with 8:41 left that put the Tar Heels up for good, Forte scored the next six points for an eight-point lead with 6:31 left.
"Once the NCAA tournament started, I was a little nervous for the first game," said Forte, who also has set North Carolina's freshman scoring record. "But I've relaxed for the rest of the games."
North Carolina has made the Final Four in every decade since the 1940s. The Tar Heels are going for their fifth and the most improbable title.
The Tar Heels had been a No. 1 or 2 seed in their previous seven Final Fours. They'd never gotten past the round of 16 with a lower seed.
According to the NCAA, North Carolina has one more Final Four
appearance than UCLA. The governing body doesn't recognize the
Bruins' 1980 trip, which was revoked as a punishment for rules