INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) -- Depth played a role, but not the way many predicted.
With what seemed like North Carolina's entire starting lineup in foul trouble, Florida dominated the final 13 minutes and recorded a 71-59 national semifinal victory at the RCA Dome.
Florida (29-7) will face Michigan State on Monday night in the national title game.
"Obviously, we're extremely excited about moving forward and having a chance to play for a national championship," said Gators coach Billy Donovan.
After Tar Heels senior point guard and team leader Ed Cota picked up his fourth foul with 13:18 remaining, the Gators put together a 9-0 run and took a 55-50 lead on Brett Nelson's jumper with 10:37 left.
"I definitely changed the game," Cota said. "My team wasn't comfortable playing with me having four fouls. My approach to the game was definitely different. I wasn't being aggressive anymore.
"I thought we'd be OK," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said. "If I didn't think we'd be OK, I would have made a change. I thought that Ed would be able to get the offense going." Cota played the rest of the game but was tentative offensively, leading to a breakdown of the efficiency North Carolina displayed while rallying from an early 18-point deficit to take a six-point just over four minutes into the second half.
While Florida's pressure defense bothered them early, the Tar Heels eventually found their game and were leading, 48-42, following a 3-pointer by Joseph Forte with 15:44 to play.
Forte, the first freshman to lead North Carolina in scoring, had 10 straight points during a 12-2 run following a 3-pointer by Brent Wright 76 seconds into the second half. Forte had 15 points before fouling out.
He was not the only Tar Heel with foul trouble. Starting forward Jason Capel eventually departed because of fouls and 7-foot center Brendan Haywood was limited after dominating the paint during the opening 20 minutes.
"Fatigue was a factor," said Haywood, who scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half. "We play six guys, sometimes seven. Some of their guys play 15 minutes a game, and we play 30 minutes a game.
"I told my roommate a few days ago that the winner of this game would win it all," he continued.
But the story of this game was not fatigue, but foul trouble and North Carolina's inability to bring in reserves. The Tar Heels feature a seven-man rotation and their five starters get most of the minutes.
After a jumper by Kris Lang -- who sat most of the second half after aggravating a right ankle injury -- put the Tar Heels ahead, 50-46, Nelson hit a short jumper and Udonis Haslem's layup off the break tied it.
Following a pair of timeouts, Major Parker drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put the Gators ahead for good with 11:02 left. Nelson hit a jumper and answered Forte's 3-pointer with one of his own.
Nelson led a balanced Florida attack with 13 points. Haslem and Mike Miller scored 10 apiece for the Gators, whose pressure forced 17 turnovers but did not play a major role for much of the game.
The Tar Heels said they did not get worn down by the press.
"Fatigue did not play a role. Fouls played a role," said Forte. "That hurt us the most. We weren't tired." The numbers, however, told a different story. North Carolina scored only six points in the final 9 1/2 minutes and was unable to put up much of a fight down the stretch, despite Florida going 5-of-10 from the line in the last 2:12.
"We knew it wasn't going to be an easy game," said Gators guard Teddy Dupay, who spent most of the night guarding Forte. "It's kind of a false sense of security when you start off shooting like that." Although he did not score in the opening 8:15, Dupay ran a near-perfect offense that provided the Gators with an 18-3 lead. Kenyan Weaks, the lone senior on Florida's roster, capped the run with a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
But the game turned. Cota, who had nine points, drilled a 3-pointer and moments later the fire seemed to return to the Tar Heels after freshman Julius Peppers, a star football player, picked up a technical foul for shoving Weaks.
"We absorbed their blows and countered with our own blows," said Florida freshman guard Justin Hamilton.
North Carolina slowly crept back into it and trailed only 37-34 at intermission.
The Tar Heels, who rebounded from a mediocre 18-13 season to reach the Final Four, again fell short in the national semifinals. North Carolina has participated in the Final Four four times since winning the last of its three national titles in 1993. It lost to Arkansas in 1995, to Arizona in 1997 and to Utah in 1998.
"Just getting to the Final Four isn't quite as fulfilling, but it showed what we could do," Forte said.
Florida, which won the East Region and is in the Final Four for only the second time in school history, is the first No. 5 seed to reach the national championship game.
"Right now I'm just trying to enjoy the sights, enjoy the atmosphere," said freshman forward Matt Bonner. "Probably tonight it will sink in, and that's all the motivation I'll need.
Florida held a 43-42 rebounding advantage and shot 39 percent (25-of-64) compared to 35 percent (20-of-57) by North Carolina, which was 5-of-22 from 3-point range and missed nine free throws.