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3/27/2007 10:01:00 AM
The Blog's All-Second Weekend Team
Taurean Green (left) led the Gators into a rematch of the 2006 title game.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Mike Conley quietly took home the South Region's MOP honors.
We're going small for the Blog's All-Second Weekend Team: two point guards, two shooting guards, and one new-age Scottie Pippen.
That Pip'-styled power forward, Georgetown's Jeff Green, is the squad's captain, based on his game-winning bank shot to beat Vanderbilt and his 22-point effort in the comeback that stunned Carolina. He's also humble to the point of amusement: Standing against a wall outside the Hoyas' locker room on Sunday night, Green was asked about being named the East Region's Most Outstanding Player. He responded, in a completely genuine manner, "I was? Oh."
"I thought it would be [Georgetown freshman] DaJuan Summers, because he played his butt off. I'm surprised to get it."
You, Jeff, were the only one who was surprised. Now, for the rest of the team:
(A few criteria for selections: The first team was limited only to players who advanced to the Final Four, and the entire list was restricted to players who appeared in both the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds.)
G: Taurean Green, Jr., Florida Stats: 5-of-8 shooting (all threes), 17 points, 1 assist, zero turnovers vs. Butler; 5-of-12 shooting, 21 points, 3 assists, 3 turnovers vs. Oregon
Green buried five treys to help the Gators fend off Butler's upset bid -- and then outscored Al Horford and Jo Noah combined (they had 20) in the Midwest Region final.
Kansas' vaunted backcourt got scorched by Afflalo in San Jose; can he now get revenge on Florida for the egg he laid in last year's title game?
G: Mike Conley, Fr., Ohio State Stats: 4-of-10 shooting, 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 turnover, 2 steals vs. Tennessee; 5-of-11 shooting (9-of-10 FTs), 19 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 5 turnovers, 2 steals vs. Memphis
Most of the talk in San Antonio surrounded Greg Oden (and Joey Dorsey's verbal antagonizing of the big man) while Conley was quietly named the region's MOP.
G/F: Ron Lewis, Sr., Ohio State Stats: 9-of-17 shooting, 25 points, 5 rebounds vs. Tennessee; 5-of-12 shooting (10-of-10 FTs), 22 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals vs. Memphis
Lewis, who toiled in obscurity for two years at Bowling Green, made a timely transfer, as he's now gunned the Buckeyes to within two wins of a national title. F: Jeff Green, Jr., Georgetown (CAPTAIN) Stats: 7-of-11 shooting, 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover vs. Vanderbilt; 10-of-17 shooting, 22 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover vs. North Carolina
Where will Green's East Region MOP trophy go? Anywhere but his place. "I don't keep my trophies," he said.
Sixth Man: Jonathan Wallace, Jr., Georgetown Stats: 3-of-8 shooting, 8 points, 4 assists, 0 turnovers vs. Vanderbilt; 7-of-11 shooting, 19 points, 7 assists, 1 turnover vs. North Carolina
Had Wallace made more noise against Vandy, he might trumped Green for team captain status. The guy whom Green called "our best player" committed just one turnover in 71 minutes played on Friday and Sunday, and hit the cold-blooded trey that sent the UNC game to overtime. Second Team:
Will John Thompson III's Hoyas cut down the nets in the ATL?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Both Final Four matchups are repeats of 2006 tourney games: Georgetown and Ohio State met in the second round, while UCLA and Florida met in the title bout.
Getty Images (4)
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The back hallways of Continental Airlines Arena had nearly cleared out by 9 p.m. Sunday, when two men in suits came walking away from the team locker rooms as maintenance workers were stripping down the NCAA tournament signage. The much taller of the two, John Thompson Jr., had a white-and-black Georgetown Final Four hat perched atop his head, and his right arm around his companion -- his hatless son, head coach John Thompson III. Big John, as the legendary elder who led the Hoyas to three national title games in the 1980s has come to be known, leaned down and spoke in hushed baritone into Little John's right ear, and the proud father and beaming boy shared a laugh.
As they neared the exit, a Georgetown staffer propped open the door and began excitedly shouting into his walkie-talkie. "The Thompsons are coming to the bus!" he said. "I've got the Thompsons coming!"
Thanks to a stunning, 96-84 overtime win over top-seeded North Carolina in the East Region final, it really is happening: The Thompsons are headed back to the Final Four.
Second-seeded Georgetown pulled off an epic comeback victory to punch the last ticket to Atlanta, filling out a powerhouse field that also includes two No. 1s, Florida and Ohio State, and another No. 2, UCLA. On one side of the field it's big-stage Deja Vu, with a rematch of the 2006 Gators-Bruins title game, while the other is a Dinosaur Duel, featuring a rare meeting of prehistoric 7-footers Roy Hibbert and Greg Oden. None of the Final Four teams, in this, the Ultimate Chalk Bracket, snuck up on the nation, and none of them separated themselves from a loaded Elite Eight field by accident, either. While Big John said he planned to celebrate the win by "getting some sleep," the Blog is forging ahead and breaking down the heavyweights headed for the A-T-L:
Tournament Identity: The Hoyas hammered home a fact that had started to become evident late in the regular season: They own the nation's best offense. In case you missed the numbers from Sunday's thriller, Georgetown shot 57.6 percent against North Carolina, which had the nation's fourth-most efficient defense. The Hoyas also hit 57.1 percent of their 3s, and more importantly, didn't panic and deviate from their Princetonian scheme when they were down 10, at 75-65, with 7:19 left in the game. "We believed in our offense," said Hibbert, who finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. Their faith was rewarded, as the shot that erased the Heels' final, three-point lead -- a trey by point guard Jonathan Wallace from the left wing -- came in the flow of their regular sets. "That's a practice shot," Wallace said of the clutch 3-pointer. "I shoot that shot every day."
The Hoyas are ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive efficiency, a fact that has not eluded East Region Most Outstanding Player Jeff Green, who finished with 22 points. "We know that our game is based on our offense," he said. "We're just going to have that identity that if you can't stop our offense, we're going to have a chance. We have the great athletes that make the Princeton offense look good."
How to Let Them Beat You: Fail to stay aware of their backcuts. The backdoor play is the most distinct -- and most cliche -- element of the Princeton offense, but against Georgetown's personnel, even the best defenders get burned. Wallace scored both the first basket of the game and the first bucket of overtime by backdooring a dumbfounded Tywon Lawson, and the Hoyas finished with six back-cut layups on the day. "We've played against teams that try to go back door," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We just didn't guard it as effectively today."
How to Beat Them: Control the offensive glass. That's not the easiest task, obviously, against a frontline of Hibbert, Green and DaJuan Summers. But when the Tar Heels took a 50-44 lead into halftime, it was no coincidence that they were winning the offensive rebounding war 10-4. The Hoyas still finished negative-10 on the game in that department, but they didn't allow UNC to grab a single offensive board in the final 6:26 of regulation, and that made the comeback possible.
Tournament Identity: This was a team that was unsure of its leadership hierarchy as late as February, with its super-freshmen still wondering whether it was acceptable for them to get in the faces of OSU's upperclassmen. The Buckeyes' roles, through the first four games of the dance, have become more clearly defined. Frosh point guard Mike Conley Jr., the MOP of the South Region, is the leader and OSU's best player -- no matter how much NBA scouts salivate over Oden. Senior Ron Lewis is their dagger-man (the gunner with the cojones to take every big three). Junior Jamar Butler, the ex-point who was displaced by Conley, has turned into long-distance shooting option No. 2. And Oden, despite his ambidextrous skills in the lane, is not the top offensive option, but is the most dominating defensive presence in the tournament.
How To Let Them Beat You: Piss off the normally sleepy giant, who shows emotion about as often as Conley commits turnovers (which is next to never). When Oden does come alive, though, it's best to get out of the way. Memphis' Joey Dorsey made the genius move of calling Oden "overrated" and using a botched David/Goliath reference when discussing their Elite Eight matchup. Oden finished with 17 points and nine rebounds ... and held Dorsey to zero points and three boards.
How To Beat Them: Get Oden off the floor. He doesn't foul out often, but he is prone to early foul trouble, so don't be scared of shot-blocking prowess and have your big men challenge him inside. Just how valuable is Oden to the Buckeyes' success? Take a look at his plus-minus ratings against Tennessee (+14 in 17:30 minutes played) and Memphis (+26 in 24:26 played). They're stunning.
Tournament Identity:Arron Afflalo's sublime performance in the West Region final against Kansas elevated his reputation from "guy who occasionally hits big shots" to "stone-cold star." Really, what two-guard goes 10-of-15 against the Jayhawks' intense backcourt -- and connects on all of his final eight attempts -- in an Elite Eight game? "If he plays like that," teammate Alfred Aboya said of Afflalo, "we can't lose."
Coach Ben Howland's gritty, denial defense is the Bruins' bread and butter, and it has been suffocating during the tournament, holding all of its first four opponents -- including red-hot Kansas -- to under 0.900 points per possession. (The Jayhawks' offensive efficiency in that game, at 0.798 points per possession, was by far their worst of the season; before that, they had never been held under 0.912.) That helped make up for an uncharacteristically high turnover count from Darren Collison (seven, against just one assist) and a near-complete absence of low-post baskets. Anyone who's followed UCLA closely this season knows that Collison's sloppiness can be chalked up as an aberration. The Bruins' big men, however, need to complement their stingy D with some offensive production.
How To Let Them Beat You: Assume that your guards, just because they've been steady all season, will be unaffected by the pressure of Collison and Afflalo. They turn up the heat to a new level. KU's four-headed backcourt, which had been an unstoppable machine over the past two months, shot a combined 12-of-36 (33.3 percent) against the Bruins' duo and committed 13 turnovers.
How To Beat Them: UCLA's post-to-post double-team -- a staple of the Howland system -- can neutralize even a front line as athletic as Kansas'. But as Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford proved in the '06 title game, big men who both get out in transition and pass quickly out of the double-team can cause serious trouble, and exploit what may be the Bruins' only weakness.
Tournament Identity: In case you weren't privy to Noah's "We win, we eat" chant after the Gators took down Oregon in the Midwest Region final, they've made it clear they're still hungry for a second title. And it seems Florida's players also believe -- far more than is actually true -- that this encore run should be billed as Them vs. An Entire World of Doubters. "Keep hating," Noah said on Sunday. "It fuels the fire. Hopefully we can get two more wins -- then people can really keep hating."
Such an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude marks a 180 turn from the meekness that defined their late-February, three-loss swoon. That slump is what fueled most of those doubts in the first place. Basketball-wise, the most promising development of the Gators' Elite Eight win over Oregon was the dominant play of their backcourt. Point guard Taurean Green and shooting guard Lee Humphrey were far from weak links all season, but they do sit well behind the frontcourt duo of Noah and Horford in the publicity standings. On Sunday, Humphrey scored 23 points and 7-of-13 long-distance shooting, while Green had 21 points on 4-of-8 three-point shooting. Each guard outscored the combined total of Noah and Horford's points (20).
How To Let Them Beat You: Decide that leaving Humphrey open while sagging your defense into the paint is a good idea. Whatever a team does to attempt to neutralize Florida's bigs (we detailed one of these methods in a column on Wednesday) it can't include using the man guarding "Humpty" on low-post double-teams. The Ducks learned the hard way, as he scorched them from outside, even tearing open the net at one point and causing a 10-minute delay.
How To Beat Them: The refrain of the "haters" during the NCAA tournament has been that Florida isn't hungry in the first half. The Gators trailed early against the Ducks on Sunday, just as they did against Jackson State, Purdue and Butler. A team that can jump on Florida in the first 10 minutes, when its appetite has yet to develop, and then play enough D down the stretch to hold back the flood, is capable of pulling off the upset. It's easier said than done -- but the window of opportunity exists.
THE FINAL FOUR MATCHUPS
Georgetown vs. Ohio State: The last time the Buckeyes faced an offense as good as Georgetown's -- Florida on Dec. 23 in Gainesville -- they were blown out. That, however, was multiple months ago, before Oden came into his own and Conley emerged as a bonafide star. The Hibbert-Oden duel will go a long way toward deciding the game, but so will the Hoyas' ability to defend Lewis and Butler on the perimeter.
The Pick: Georgetown 72, Ohio State 71. Set your watch to Jeff Green Time in Atlanta.
Florida vs. UCLA: The '07 Bruins are in many ways better than they were in '06 -- especially with Collison's defense and point-guard play, as well as Afflalo's big-shot confidence -- but have they proven they can prevent a repeat of last April's blowout? The fact they shut down Kansas' active bigs on Saturday was a positive sign, but Sasha Kaun, Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson are not Noah and Horford. Revenge will not come easy.
The Pick: Florida 69, UCLA 65. The hate, at least here, does not exist.
Georgetown is back in the Final Four for the first time in 22 years.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
John Thompson III (top) hoisted the East Region title trophy, while Patrick Ewing (bottom) played the role of proud father in East Rutherford.
Getty Images, AP
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Once the reality had set in, that Georgetown had erased a nine-point deficit to top-seeded North Carolina in the final six minutes of an NCAA tournament epic, sent the game to overtime on a clutch three by Jonathan Wallace, and gone on a 14-0 run there to seal its first Final Four trip since 1985, the scene on the floor at Continental Airlines Arena turned surreal.
First there was Patrick Ewing -- not the sophomore forward who grabbed the clutch rebound on North Carolina's final shot of regulation, a missed 3-pointer by Wayne Ellington, but the famed center who led the Hoyas to a national title in 1984 -- holding court with reporters in front of the Georgetown bench. His eyes glistening, and his elaborate, multi-dog-tag-bling necklace glimmering in the stadium lights, he said, "I feel like I just won!"
Then there was the stream of Georgetown players walking over to the scorer's table to exchange hugs with one of CBS' radio announcers after winning 96-84. The man in the headset happened to be Big John Thompson Jr., who had brought the program to prominence in the 1980s, making three Final Four trips and winning one national championship, in 1984. Here, while the Hoyas shot a jaw-dropping 57.6 percent from the field, and 57.1 percent from three-point land, to keep up with a Tar Heels attack that many said would leave them in the dust, the elder Thompson had provided the nation with blow-by-blow analysis.
Then there was Big John's son, John Thompson III -- or Little John, as Tar Heels coach Roy Williams called him Saturday -- morphing out of his reserved persona into that of a showman, grabbing the microphone on the podium at midcourt and repeatedly yelling "WE ARE," with his rooting section responding en masse, "GEORGETOWN!"
And last, there was the Easter Bunny -- or at least a Georgetown football player named Andrew Rehwinkel profusely sweating through an Easter Bunny costume -- in the first row of the stands. He had run down there from the upper deck to congratulate players like Jeff Green, the junior who had 22 points and was named the East Region's Most Outstanding Player, and freshman DaJuan Summers, who came up huge with 20 points and six rebounds, as they left the floor. "Easter came early, baby!" yelled Rehwinkel, who bought the costume that day at a local Target. He called it "the best $50 I've spent in my life."
About 15 minutes earlier, after UNC's Ellington misfired a 3-pointer with 1:24 left in overtime -- the Tar Heels' seventh straight miss to open the extra period -- the game finally looked in hand for Georgetown, whose fans couldn't control their emotions in the stands. I glanced toward the nosebleed sections behind the Hoyas' bench, where GU's massive student section had been unfairly relegated for both contests in East Rutherford, and saw Rehwinkel holding both of his hands up to his head in disbelief. A victory had once seemed doubtful, with UNC killing Georgetown on the offensive glass in the first half (by a 10-4 margin), Thompson getting T'ed up for arguing a call, and the Heels playing at their pace to take a 50-44 lead into the break. Now, with the win in hand, even the Easter Bunny was in a state of shock.
The most level head I could find amid the chaos was that of Wallace, the 6-foot-1 junior guard with a very un-Georgetown like background. He was raised on an 80-acre cattle farm in rural Alabama, and was the student government president at Sparkman High School in Huntsville, before coming to Washington DC to lead the Hoyas back to prominence. Green, in his postgame interviews, recalled a trip he and Tyler Crawford took two summers ago to the Wallace farm, where "one big, tan-and-white cow that had a loose, dangling horn and just stared at me and Tyler."
The odd man on the Hoyas' mostly urban roster, though, had hit the biggest shot of the day, losing Lawson beneath a screen and drilling a three from the left wing to tie the game at 81-81 with 31.2 seconds left. Before telling his cow tale, Green had affectionately called Wallace, who averaged 11.0 points on the season but had 19 on 7-of-11 shooting on Sunday, "the best player on the team, to me."
And so it was Wallace who, when describing that shot, did not yell or spin a yarn about envisioning it in a dream. He simply said that it came, like most of the Hoyas' other clutch shots down the stretch, within the flow of their offense. "That's a practice shot," he said. "I shoot that shot every day."
Indeed, the story of the second-half comeback that sent Georgetown to the Final Four is not one of individual heroics, but merely that of a team trusting in the offense -- Thompson's modified Princeton attack -- that got them to East Rutherford. Down eight, at 73-65, with 7:51 left in the game, Thompson entered the huddle smiling during a media timeout and said (according to Green), "We're fine -- just keep running the offense, getting rebounds, and making stops."
"It was not a big plan to come in chuckling," said Thompson, "but I felt good about where we were."
Thompson's move was eerily similar to one found in a story Williams had told Saturday about the meeting between Georgetown and North Carolina in the hallowed 1982 national title game. During a timeout with 32 seconds left and UNC down by one, Dean Smith addressed the team one last time before Michael Jordan's storybook shot. According to Williams:
"There was not one time during the Final Four that I had he ever thought about that we could possibly lose. When those guys came over to the bench, the look on their face just shocked me because I saw a negative look. We kneeled down in front of the bench like coaches do, and Coach Smith said, "we're in great shape." He said, "I'd much rather be in our shoes than theirs. We are exactly where we want to be."
The rest -- MJ's jumper and James Worthy's steal -- was history. So, little did we know, while it looked like Georgetown was on the ropes, JTIII was channeling Smith and the Hoyas believed themselves to be in better shape than anyone else imagined. Three straight field goals in the paint by Sapp, Green and Hibbert -- the last a resounding dunk on a baseline spin -- cut UNC's lead to three at the 4:22 mark. The two teams battled back and forth for the next four minutes until it was time for Wallace to have his Jordan moment.
Williams called a timeout seven seconds later, removed his glasses, put them in the breast pocket of his suit, and entered the huddle to call a play for the final shot. Ellington's 3 -- which was, somewhat to the coach's dismay, not the first option -- was off, bringing about overtime. The final five minutes were a one-sided affair, beginning with a quintessential backcut-for-layup by Wallace, and ending with the Tar Heels' title hopes buried under a 12-point deficit.
In the tunnel afterward, Wallace made his way toward the Arena's exit without as much as a whoop or a holler, carrying his duffel bag and happily wearing his Final Four hat. Big John, who was waiting for his son to emerge, stopped Wallace and asked him, why, in the postgame press conference, he hadn't told the reporters, "I've been hitting big shots like that all year!"
Wallace shrugged his shoulders, and offered a hushed reply that seemed to appease the iconic former coach. Such boasting would have been uncharacteristic for the steady pilot of the Hoyas' unstoppable offense. And besides, he had more pressing things to do than bragging -- like catching the team bus outside, returning to DC, and preparing for the madness that awaits in Atlanta.
Before and after: Georgetown switched from gray kicks to white.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Talent alone will not get you to the Final Four. Everyone knows that the recipe also requires a little bit of luck, whether it be in the form of a fortunate bounce or a favorable whistle at just the right time. And this is why so many otherwise level-headed hoopsters turn superstitious in the crucible of the NCAA tournament.
If you look out on the floor at Continental Airlines Arena on Sunday and see most of Georgetown's players wearing white-and-blue Jordan B'Loyal shoes against North Carolina, note that this color-coordination is not random. The Hoyas are sponsored by Jumpman, the label owned by the jump shooter who killed them in the 1982 national championship game. They wore those white Jordans for the first 35 games of this season. Early last week, however, in honor of their trip to the Sweet 16, a fresh shipment of custom, gray-and-blue Jordan XX2s arrived, complete with Georgetown's "G" logo on the back.
The footwear upgrade was positively received in practice, but when they went into halftime down 32-24 to Vanderbilt on Friday, the Hoyas began wondering if His Airness was indirectly playing the villain again. Naturally, their struggles were not the result of cold shooting (33.3 percent) or lack of emotion (they looked rather lifeless), but rather their brand-new kicks. "To us it was symbolic," said sophomore guard Jessie Sapp. "They were new shoes, so we felt like we were acting like new players. In order for us to go back to our old-school Georgetown basketball that we'd been playing the whole year, we had to go back to our old shoes."
To be loyal to the Hoyas' throwback ethic, the XX2s had to go, and the B'Loyals had to come back. Sapp explained the shoe-switch in depth afterward, but when it actually occurred, it spread through the locker room as a silent wave of superstition.
Junior point guard Jonathan Wallace sparked it, saying later that he wanted to go "back to the bread-and-butter" that got the Hoyas to the Sweet 16. Center Roy Hibbert followed. Jeff Green -- who would go on to hit the game-winning shot -- copied his fellow juniors' wardrobe change, saying, "I didn't want to be the odd character out there." Youngsters Sapp and Pat Ewing Jr. were next. "Pat kind of looked at me," Sapp said, "and we both thought, 'We don't want to be brand new. We want to be ourselves.'"
Of the Georgetown starters, only HugMasterDaJuan Summers -- a freshman, and thus the most new-school of the bunch -- kept his XX2s on in the second half. The rest of the Hoyas' cast found their footing (as well as, coincidentally, their accuracy and intensity) and overtook the Commodores to seal a trip to the Elite Eight. "I don't want to say the shoes caused anything," said Wallace, "but hey, whatever works -- and it worked."
On Sunday, the good-luck war will not automatically won by Georgetown. Its opponent, North Carolina, is just as obsessed with such business. Point guard Tywon Lawsonexplained the "whiteboard box" on Friday night, and said some Heels blamed their slow start against USC on the fact that they neglected to draw the box (with the number 16 in it) before the game. And head coach Roy Williams, when asked on Saturday for his most vivid memories of that '82 final -- for which he was a young assistant on Dean Smith's staff -- told a story about a Snickers bar before even mentioning Jordan's shot:
"I was a little superstitious. I kept a candy bar in my pocket before every game down the stretch and I would always buy it at the arena. Believe it or not, the Superdome in New Orleans in 1982 didn't sell candy, and so I went to one of the gates, walked out and went across the street in New Orleans to buy a candy bar. I came back to the door and the guard that was there had changed and they weren't going to let me come back in. My biggest memory is how doggone scared I am -- I'm helping coach a team in the national championship game and I'm not even going to get into the freaking arena."
Between shoes, boxes, candy, and umpteen other rituals individual Hoyas and Heels are no doubt keeping secret, lest they lose their potency, the basketball portion of the East Region final is only a secondary matter.
Marcus Ginyard ignited the Tar Heels' 18-0 run with three baskets from offensive rebounds.
Michael Heiman/Getty Images
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On their locker-room whiteboard during the NCAA tournament, North Carolina coaches have been in the habit of drawing a large box in blue marker, and then writing a number inside. You could even call it a superstition. When reporters were allowed inside after the top-seeded Tar Heels' 74-64 comeback win over fifth-seeded USC early Saturday morning, the box contained a giant and ominous "8".
Eight, as in, eight teams left in the dance, and we're one of them, courtesy of a furious 18-0 run that buried the Trojans midway through the second half. "If we win, we chop the number down," explained point guard Tywon Lawson, who had a cold shooting night (2-of-10, four points) but outraced fatigued USC late in the game. There was, however, one complication with the box at the outset of the evening: UNC forgot to draw it before tipoff. And at halftime, said Lawson, "some guys were blaming our bad start on us not ever putting up the 16."
That's right: The Heels are superstitious enough to actually blame their nine-point halftime deficit -- to a USC team that was not only matching but surpassing Carolina's athleticism -- on the absence of digits on a markerboard. That should serve as an example of just how fragile life can be for a No. 1 seed in the tournament, even if all four have advanced to the Elite Eight. Ohio State went down to the wire with Tennessee. Kansas survived a dogfight with Southern Illinois. Florida trailed Butler in the second half before winning. And Carolina, without the all-important "16" in its head, played a passionless first 25 minutes against USC and had Roy Williams worrying that his golf season might begin early this year.
"We feel very fortunate," Williams said of the comeback. "Please understand it was not any great coaching strategy; we just got kids that did give us the effort in the second half. We had a lot saved up because we didn't use very much of it in the first half."
As the Trojans' Taj Gibson dominated inside (12 points, nine boards in the first half) and guards Nick Young (11 in the first half) and Gabe Pruitt (nine) lit up the scoreboard with an array of slashing moves early on, UNC looked almost helpless. It wasn't pushing the pace, and its unmasked star, Tyler Hansbrough, was invisible. He had only two points in the first half and five in the game.
"We knew, coming in, that we were going to be able to get what we wanted," said Pruitt. "We took advantage of penetration and got the ball Taj in the lane, but they just played bigger down the stretch, especially on the glass."
The leader of the Tar Heels' put-back parade was unheralded sophomore guard Marcus Ginyard, who ignited their epic run -- which lasted from 11:03 to 4:28 in the second half -- with not one, not two, but three follow-up buckets. The third, with 7:38 left, cut the USC lead to one at 59-58 and all but deflated the Trojans' hopes of holding back the flood. Ginyard, the player who had publicly questioned Carolina's toughness during its pre-ACC tournament malaise, came from the left baseline for a one-handed tip-in of a Wayne Ellington miss, and then let out a scream that was audible over the roar of the crowd. After three more minutes of the Heels' high-paced onslaught, USC was completely submerged.
"Those extra-effort plays are the ones that get everybody's emotions high," Ginyard said. "That gave this team the energy and the spark to play better defensively and get going on offense."
Ginyard and the Heels found the spark just in time to set up a 1-vs.-2 duel with Georgetown on Sunday. Before that showdown begins, one assumes, the whiteboard number will be prominently posted.
Player Who Impressed: Brandan Wright, UNC. Wright was underwhelming against Michigan State, getting pushed around by the tougher Spartans and held to just three points while playing limited minutes. He looked soft again in the first half against USC, as the more active Taj Gibson (who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds) worked him inside. Just when we were starting to write UNC's obituary, though -- with Wright's ineffectiveness as part of the cause of death -- he came up huge in the second half. Once Gibson got into foul trouble, the 6-foot-9 Wright used his length to elevate over the Trojans, and scored 13 second-half points to finish with 21. Roy Williams likes to use Tiger Woods references when talking about Wright, and on Friday he said this:
"Yesterday again, Tiger shot 71, last week he shot 76 in the final round; but he's still Tiger," Williams said. "Today he shot 66. So Brandan shot 76 the other night but he shot 66 today. He doesn't know what the heck I'm talking about, so I can say anything I want about golf."
Courtside Confidential: UNC's media relations staff distributed a sobering press release late in Friday's game. It stated that the team's mascot for the past three years, senior Jason Ray, had been hit by a car outside a hotel in Fort Lee, N.J., that afternoon. He was listed in critical condition at the Hackensack Medical Center. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was informed of the situation just seconds before his opening press-conference remarks. "It sort of makes everything else pale in comparison," Williams said. "It's nerve-wracking right now to think about that." ... There was one celebrity sighting other than ol' Pat Ewing in East Rutherford: Giants quarterback Eli Manning. ... USC's players were mostly sporting closely shaved heads for Friday's game -- a big change from the wild cuts they wore to Thursday's practice. Said Nick Young, who had mini-frohawk with intricate designs shaved into the sides during that workout, "Coach had a talk with us and he thought it would be better if we go out there looking the same -- so everybody on the team's got bald heads."
The Big Picture: Both Carolina and Georgetown overcame miserable starts to reach the East Region final. But while the Hoyas seemed more upbeat about overtaking Vandy -- perhaps it was the last-second nature in which they won -- some Tar Heels were still expressing concern over their early sluggishness. "We can't keep doing this," said Ginyard. "It's tough to say that, but it's even tougher to do that. We've really got to start playing 40-minute games, and from this point on we have to get tougher."
Much of the pressure to step up will fall on Hansbrough, who had one of his worst performances of the season on Friday but said, "I always play better after I've played poorly." Whether or not he wins the star battle with Georgetown's versatile Jeff Green will go a long way in deciding the game. While Kansas-UCLA is considered by many to be the tournament's marquee regional final, is there really anything bigger than UNC-Georgetown? It'll be a classic contrast of styles, pitting the Hoyas' methodically efficient halfcourt scheme against the Heels' relentless up-tempo attack. "We don't feel like anyone can run with us for 40 minutes," said Hansbrough. The Hoyas aren't interested in running, though. They just want to pick UNC apart.
DaJuan Summers (right) chased down Jeff Green (left) after the buzzer sounded.
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Jeff Green squeezed between two defenders and Georgetown squeezed out a win.
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- How Jeff Green wanted to celebrate his shining moment, we'll never know. Green isn't a particularly flamboyant player, so perhaps he didn't have any jersey-popping or arm-waving planned after he banked in the game-winning shot with 2.5 seconds left to lift Georgetown over Vanderbilt 66-65, and into the Elite Eight. Thanks to freshman teammate DaJuan Summers, though, Green's party consisted of being enveloped in a suffocating bear-hug near halfcourt.
"I just said, 'Gimme a hug, man, just hug me, because that was amazing'," Summers explained later, neglecting to consider that he gave Green no other option but to hug. "Jeff's made big shots before, like against Notre Dame in the Big East tournament, but this was different. It was on a whole different stage."
In a game that the second-seeded Hoyas nearly bumbled away -- falling behind by 13 points late in the first half, erasing that deficit in the second, then watching their star center, Roy Hibbert, foul out with 3:58 left, and giving Vandy the lead back with under 20 seconds left -- they were rescued by the player who had carried them through many of the 29 wins that had preceded this one. And even then, Green, who would finish with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting, nearly coughed up the ball -- and Georgetown's season with it -- on the final possession. The play had him receiving the the rock near the right elbow, with instructions to look for Patrick Ewing Jr. on a backdoor cut, but that option wasn't available.
That would have been the storybook East Coast ending to this Friday night in Jersey, with one Ewing hitting the game-winner while another Ewing (his pops, Patrick, the ex-Knicks star who received an ovation when he appeared on the scoreboard in the first half) looked on from behind the bench. This game, however, was more stormy than scripted, and Green had to improvise against a double-team with the clock running down. He lost the ball at first as he spun, then recovered, calling it a "fumble play I had to make," and somehow found a way to kiss it off the glass and in. He appeared to have traveled on the replay, but at that crucial juncture, the refs' whistles were buried. "I got lucky," Green said of the shot, "and it went in."
"We knew what was coming," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "It looked like we had him covered, and I'm certainly not going to take away from the dignity of the game [by questioning the refs]. I haven't seen the replay, and I don't care to. He made a great shot."
After Commodores guard Alex Gordon had his prayer from just inside halfcourt blocked at the buzzer, Hibbert came running off the bench to join the mob scene. The gentle giant, whose bonehead foul on Derrick Byars' three-point attempt with 3:58 left both disqualified him and resulted in a 3-point Vandy lead, admitted that it hurt to watch the final four minutes from the pine. "But," said Hibbert, "I had faith they would pull it out in crunch time."
Hoyas guard Jessie Sapp, who was sitting next to the hug-happy Summers in the corner of the locker room, felt that crunch time was not the appropriate description for Green's situation.
"That's Jeff Green time," said Sapp. "And Jeff Green does what Jeff Green does. If he didn't do it again today, we're not moving on."
What Green has done, just in the past three weeks, is hit a game-winning jumper to beat Notre Dame in the Big East tourney semifinals; devastate Boston College with his late work on the offensive glass -- plays he made when his normal moves weren't working -- in the second round of the NCAA tournament; and Friday, push the Hoyas to within one game of the Final Four. In what is likely his last year in college before entering the NBA draft, the junior forward is relishing every opportunity to take the big shot.
"I like to have the ball in my hands in the [close] games, because I have confidence in myself that I can make plays," Green said in Georgetown's postgame press conference, with coach John Thompson III sitting at his side. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to try to win the game, If that's having the ball in my hands or making another play to get my teammate open. Hopefully I'm one of those top players that can make those plays."
It was then that Thompson felt the need to chime in and confirm the hopes of his star. "His coach," said Thompson, "feels that way."
Good, then. We're all in agreement. The Hoyas are in good hands when Jeff Green Time rolls around, and he does what he does. It's usually something worthy of an embrace.