AUSTIN, Texas (Ticker) -- It's not a shock to see North Carolina in the Final Four, but it is a surprise.
The Tar Heels completed the most improbable of their record 15 Final Four runs, receiving a huge game from freshman Joseph Forte in a 59-55 victory over Tulsa in the NCAA Tournament's South Region final at the Erwin Center.
North Carolina (22-13) snapped a tie with UCLA for the most Final Four appearances by one school and will play the East Region winner -- Florida -- on Saturday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
"I'm so proud of these guys and happy for them," said Tar Heels coach Bill Guthridge, who is headed to his second Final Four. "They did a tremendous job. We beat a very good Tulsa team." The Tar Heels, who did not have a four-game winning streak all season until the NCAA Tournament, join Wisconsin as No. 8 seeds in the Final Four. It is the first time two eighth seeds have reached the Final Four since the seeding process began in 1979.
"We just became a team," said senior point guard Ed Cota. "We finally just got it together, and there can't be a better time for this." Cota played in the Final Four during his freshman and sophomore seasons but the Tar Heels suffered national semifinal losses to Arizona and Utah, respectively.
"I feel great right now," he added. "I'm happy for the freshmen and sophomores to experience the Final Four." Forte scored a season-high 28 points, including six during a key 10-0 run. He sealed the victory by making the second of two free throws with 4.1 seconds remaining.
"It feels great," said Forte, who is the first freshman to lead North Carolina in scoring. "You can only dream about this and I'm glad it can come true." By clinching their sixth Final Four berth since 1991, the Tar Heels denied Tulsa its first trip to the sport's showcase event.
The Golden Hurricane (32-5) set a school record for victories this season and their five losses -- three to Fresno State -- came by a combined 11 points. They were in a regional final for the first time.
As the final score indicated, the Tar Heels got the game they wanted. North Carolina used its tremendous size advantage to dominate the lane on both ends of the floor and never allowed Tulsa's quickness to become a factor.
In addition, the Tar Heels' big men -- 7-foot center Brendan Haywood, 6-10 Kris Lang and 6-7 Julius Peppers -- stayed out of foul trouble. Tulsa's top two scorers, David Shelton and Eric Coley, both had four fouls midway through the second half.
The Golden Hurricane allowed North Carolina to score the first six points of the second half but steadied themselves and forced a 41-41 tie on a layup by Dante Swanson.
But Peppers, who doubles as a defensive end on the North Carolina football team, went 2-of-2 from the line with 8:41 left to put the Tar Heels ahead for good. Forte converted a layup, made two free throws and scored with a runner during the ensuing 10-point burst that made it 51-41 with 5:25 left.
Swanson, a freshman, kept Tulsa in the game down the stretch by scoring seven points in the final 1:50, including a 3-pointer that brought the Golden Hurricane within 57-55 with 20 seconds to go.
After Cota went 1-of-2 from the line, Tulsa had a chance to tie, but Shelton missed a 3-pointer from the right wing. Shelton shot 1-of-9 and was held to two points, more than 11 below his average.
The Golden Hurricane did themselves in by making just one shot from the floor during an 8:58 stretch of the second half. They were outscored in that span, 12-2.
Coley came in averaging 11.4 points per game but had only six. Tulsa, which connected on just 37 percent (22-of-59) of its shots, was led by Swanson's 15 points. Marcus Hill and Brandon Kurtz added 11 apiece.
Forte was the only player in double figures for the Tar Heels, but Haywood and Peppers each grabbed eight rebounds as North Carolina built a 40-29 advantage on the boards. The Heels had 13 second-chance points to just one by Tulsa.
North Carolina shot 44 percent (22-of-50) despite a 2-of-12 performance from beyond the arc. It held a 13-6 advantage at the foul line.
The Tar Heels have reached the Final Four seven times since 1979, but each of the previous times they were one of the tournament favorites. On five occasions, they were seeded first and twice they were the second seed when they reached the Final Four.
It is only the second time North Carolina has made it to the Final Four out of the South or Southeast Region. It defeated Kentucky in the 1995 Southeast Region final before losing to Arkansas in the national semifinals.