AUSTIN, Texas (Ticker) -- Just when it seemed like its stirring NCAA Tournament run was at an end, North Carolina remembered it is the school trained in the art of basketball.
The eighth-seeded Tar Heels rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final 4 1/2 minutes to shock No. 4 Tennessee, 74-69, and reach the South Region final of the NCAA Tournament.
In a game billed as a basketball school against a football school, North Carolina (21-13) executed down the stretch despite playing the final eight minutes without 7-foot center Brendan Haywood, who had fouled out.
"That was a tremendous win for us," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said. "I'm so happy for our team and proud of them, the way they hung in there." Backcourt mates Ed Cota and Joseph Forte combined for 11 points during a game-closing 15-3 run as the eighth-seeded Tar Heels advanced to a regional final for the third time in four seasons and will play Tulsa on Sunday.
"This was definitely a team effort," Tar Heels forward Jason Capel said. "We let down a little, but we stuck together and were able to pull it out in the end." Forte carried North Carolina in the first half and picked up his play after Haywood departed. He finished with 22 points, including a 3-pointer with 4:27 remaining that began to change the momentum.
"I hadn't shot the ball that much in the second half," Forte said of his key 3-pointer. "I really wasn't getting many open looks. I ran off a good screen and just knocked it down." Haywood departed with 8:03 to play and Harris Walker proceeded to go 2-of-2 from the line as Tennessee (26-7) grabbed a 57-53 lead. A hook shot by C.J. Black pushed the edge to six points with 7:21 left, but it was the Volunteers' last field goal until a 3-pointer by Tony Harris with 13 seconds remaining.
"Once Brendan Haywood fouled out, we knew Ed (Cota) would take over," Capel added. "He's a senior, he's been to two Final Fours, and we wanted the ball in his hands down the stretch." Despite its drought from the floor, Tennessee held a 64-57 advantage with 4:48 to play following two free throws by Vincent Yarbrough. The Volunteers went 21-of-24 from the line as they tried to overcome a 36 percent (21-of-59) shooting performance.
They could not do it, however, as North Carolina began its comeback on Forte's 3-pointer. Capel banked in a runner moments later and after a couple of timeouts, Cota's floater in the lane tied it at 64-64 with 3:03 to play.
"We've had a couple of times like this," Tennessee coach Jerry Green said. "A couple of games where we had a 10- or 12-point lead, and all of a sudden we try to slay the dragon by ourselves and make tough plays." The Tar Heels benefited from a replay that showed Harris' runner did not hit the rim, resulting in a shot clock violation. Cota took advantage by banking home a shot with two minutes left that put North Carolina on top for good.
"I was just out there trying to control the game," Cota said. "I was trying to get everybody involved and just trying to have patience out there. I knew my time was going to come. It got down the wire and I made some big plays. My teammates believed in me." Harris missed from long range with 1:27 to go, something that would become a pattern in the waning moments. Ron Slay twice missed 3-pointers and Jon Higgins misfired on a long-range attempt with 17 seconds to play.
Forte, Julius Peppers, who came up big in Haywood's absence, and Cota combined to go 6-of-6 from the line in the final 34 seconds as the Tar Heels hung on.
Cota, who ranks third on the NCAA all-time assists list, collected five more to go along with 11 points and seven rebounds as he assured his stellar collegiate career would last at least one more game.
Haywood had 11 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots while Kris Lang contributed 10 points for North Carolina, which connected on 50 percent (29-of-58) of its shots.
The Volunteers, who received 17 points from Slay, held a 38-34 advantage on the boards but committed 14 turnovers that led to 20 North Carolina points.
"I can't really put it into words," said Yarbrough. "I thought we had the game won, but they just out-played us in the last four minutes. We came out of the last timeout and still thought we had the game, but they made some shots and that was the game." Tennessee was appearing in a regional semifinal for the first time since 1981 but has never reached the "Elite Eight." After jumping to an early 18-11 lead behind 11 points from Forte, the Tar Heels went cold from the field and Tennessee put together a 19-7 run, opening a 30-23 advantage on Black's dunk with 6:33 to play before halftime.
The Volunteers remained on top until Cota's basket with two minutes left and had their biggest lead at 51-42 on Slay's bank shot with just over 13 minutes remaining.
"We played well for about 36 minutes," Black said. "We didn't play good the last four minutes. We started rushing our shots. We didn't know when to back the offense out and start all over. We really just started forcing shots. They capitalized on it, causing a lot of fast breaks and running the break." .