NEW ORLEANS (Ticker) -- Perhaps it was only fitting that Penn State needed to overcame a tremendous performance by a football player in order to record arguably the biggest basketball win in school history.
The Nittany Lions, who owned just one NCAA Tournament victory in the past 46 years before this season, did not let Julius Peppers beat them and reached the "Sweet 16" for the first time since 1955 with an 82-74 victory over North Carolina.
North Carolina native Titus Ivory scored a career-high 21 points and hit the game's biggest shot, a 3-pointer from the left wing with just over four minutes remaining that gave Penn State (20-12) the lead for good at 69-68.
"I can go home with my head held high," Ivory said. "It's a great feeling." Sophomore guard Brandon Watkins made three key plays down the stretch for the seventh-seeded Nittany Lions, who will play Temple in the South Region semifinals on Friday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
"We are in unchartered waters as a basketball team right now," said Penn State coach Jerry Dunn. "The guys did a great job, this is an outstanding feeling." "I expected us to win," said Nittany Lions guard Joe Crispin. "I know this is a great win, but we want to keep going." Behind Peppers, the Tar Heels (26-7) rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to take a 68-64 lead on a driving layup by Ronald Curry with 5 1/2 minutes remaining. Peppers had 10 of his career-high 21 points during the 22-9 run and also grabbed 10 rebounds.
A 6-6 sophomore, Peppers is an All-American defensive end for the North Carolina football team. He led the nation with 15 sacks last season and recently was voted by NCAA coaches as the country's best two-sport athlete.
That only added to the irony as Penn State, undoubtedly one of the top five football schools ever, shocked North Carolina, a premier basketball institution. Also, the victory for Penn State came in the same building -- the Superdome -- where it won the 1982 national football title with a victory in the Sugar Bowl.
"They (North Carolina) are an outstanding team," Dunn said. "I knew going in that we would be facing a talented, well-coached team and would need to execute." After reaching the semifinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament with a victory over defending national champion Michigan State, the Nittany Lions were awarded just the eighth NCAA Tournament bid in school history and third since 1965.
They defeated Providence in the first round and are now part of the "Sweet 16" for the first time since 1955. Penn State went to the Final Four for the only time in school history the previous season and lost to La Salle.
"It is really hard to put into words," Dunn added. "It is a great feeling." Ivory, who wanted to play for North Carolina while in high school, sat for most of the second half because of foul trouble but returned to make two free throws and the huge 3-pointer.
After North Carolina leading scorer Joseph Forte, who was held to six points on 3-of-13 shooting, missed a 3-pointer, Gyasi Cline-Heard made a pair of foul shots to give Penn State a three-point advantage.
A jumper in the lane by Jason Capel pulled North Carolina within a point with 3 1/2 minutes left and Penn State's Joe Crispin missed a 3-pointer, but the Nittany Lions retained possession. Moments later, Watkins feld Tyler Smith for a baseline jumper.
Watkins committed a steal, setting up a jumper by Ivory that pushed the Nittany Lions' advantage to 75-70 with 91 seconds to play.
Peppers' layup again got North Carolina within three, but Watkins hit a jumper in the lane for his only basket of the afternoon. Two free throws by Crispin with 45 seconds left sealed the victory.
Crispin and Titus Ivory finished with 21 points apiece and Cline-Heard had 19 and nine rebounds for the Nittany Lions, who won despite getting outrebounded by the taller Tar Heels, 44-33. Penn State shot 44 percent (31-of-71) and committed just 11 turnovers while forcing 22.
Brendan Haywood, in his final collegiate game, collected 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Tar Heels, who connected on 47 percent (30-of-64) of their shots despite going just 3-of-17 from 3-point range.
The 7-foot Haywood, who likely will be a first-round NBA draft choice, played in a pair of Final Fours (1998, 2000) but was also part of two disappointing NCAA Tournaments.
North Carolina, which went to the "Sweet 16" nine consecutive times from 1985-93, was upset in the opening round of the tournament two years ago by Weber State and this season goes home early despite a No. 1 ranking and an 18-game winning streak during the campaign.
"My expecations are higher than anybody's in this room," said first-year coach Matt Doherty, whose team went 4-5 in its last nine games. "You judge effort, and I thought our effort was very good. One thing I congratulated our team on today was a couple of times this year, we gave in. Today, we didn't give in." Using their superior height, the Tar Heels built an early 19-8 lead on a jumper by 6-11 Kris Lang seven minutes into the first half. But Crispin drilled a 3-pointer to begin an 8-0 run and Penn State took the lead for the first time, 30-29, on a layup by Cline-Heard with 4:32 left before halftime.
"Throught the season, we've had matchups against bigger guys," said Cline-Heard. "We had to pick and choose our battles. I have to give all the credit to the backcourt. We tried to do as best as we could in the frontcourt." North Carolina led, 40-39, at the break, but the Nittany Lions used a 16-6 run early in the second half to take a 55-46 lead on a reverse layup by Crispin with 13:12 remaining.
"I feel the key to the game was that we turned the ball over entirely too much," said Haywood. "We can't do that and win." Penn State handed the Tar Heels their first loss inside the Superdome and their first NCAA Tournament setback in the building in six games. North Carolina won the 1982 and 1993 national championship inside the Superdome, defeating Georgetown and Michigan, respectively.
This was the Nittany Lions' first victory over North Carolina in four tries.