Dean Smith and North Carolina are finally going back to the Final Four, thanks to some luck, a wealth of talent and a little bit of an old offense that is Tar Heel tradition.
Smith and the Tar Heels earned their first Final Four berth since 1982 by getting four clutch free throws from King Rice in the last 22.9 seconds to defeat Temple 75-72 in the NCAA East Regional Final Sunday."I'm very excited," said Rice, the senior point guard who had just one turnover in the two games at the Brendan Byrne Arena. "You have to be lucky. I would have given everything to go to the Final Four. That's all that really matters."
Getting there was a struggle and a half.
Every time top-seeded North Carolina (29-5) seemed ready to clear that final hurdle against Temple, the Owls (24-10) came back, riding a 31-point performance by senior guard Mark Macon.
That's the same Macon who three years ago made only 6 of 29 shots from the field in Temple's 63-53 loss to Duke in the regional final here. Sunday, he was hitting nothing but net.
Macon had a final chance to put a roadblock in the Tar Heels' way to Indianapolis and a national semifinal showdown with Kansas (26-7) on Saturday. But his 25-footer that looked good all the way bounced off the front of the rim with about two seconds to play and rolled away.
"I'm very pleased for the seniors," said Smith, who used a form of the famed four-corner offense in the closing minutes to help take North Carolina to the Final Four for the eighth time in his career and set up a game against former assistant coach Roy Williams. "To make the Final Four, you have to be very good and very lucky. This year we've been lucky."
The Tar Heels also are good and deep. The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champions have been playing 11 men regularly, and eight contributed points against Temple of the Atlantic 10 Conference.
All the big points came from the starting five. Rick Fox and Hubert Davis had 19 apiece, Rice added 10 and George Lynch had six of his 10 in the final 7:33 when Temple four times pulled within three points and then got to 73-72 on Macon's fourth 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds to play.
Temple called time out after the play and fouled Rice after the inbounds pass with eight seconds to play.
"I always want the ball when the game is one the line," said Rice, who had hit 43 of his last 55 free throws coming into the game. "I'm comfortable taking those shots. I'm a good foul shooter. I knew I would make them."
Temple coach John Chaney had no doubts who he wanted shooting the final shot for the Owls. The ball went to Macon, the senior guard was voted the regional's most outstanding player with 57 points in two games.
Macon got the inbounds pass, made a spin move at midcourt, dribbled about two more times and let fly with a 25-footer, about 2 feet beyond NBA 3-point range.
"I thought it was good," said Macon, who hit 12 of 23 from the field, including 4 of 9 from 3-point range. "But that's the way I think. It went off the front of the rim. It just didn't go in."
Both Davis and Fox also thought the shot was good.
"I have never guarded anybody, except Rodney Monroe (North Carolina State) who has as much confidence in his shot," Fox said.
Fox said the one thing he didn't want to do was foul Macon.
"I thought he was going to take another dribble," Fox said. "I remember thinking when he took the shot, `Man, that's a long shot."'
It fell just short.
Temple came into the game as a long shot against the Tar Heels and in the opening minutes it appeared like the it would get blown out. North Carolina jumped to a 10-0 lead before the Owls responded with an 18-4 run that included 15 points by Macon.
There were seven lead changes over the next four minutes before North Carolina took the lead for good with a six-point spurt that Fox capped with a ally-oop basket for a 30-25 edge.
The biggest lead North Carolina got the rest of the way was 11 points, twice, the last time coming at 49-38 on a 10-footer by Fox with 14:37 to go.
Temple nibbled at the lead over the next 10 minutes before getting it down to 65-62 with 4:41 to play on a basket by Mik Kilgore, who added 18 points.
The Owls were still within 69-66 with 2:49 to go when North Carolina went to the delay game. The Tar Heels used the offense on four consecutive possessions, getting a basket from Lynch, the four foul shots from Rice and a foul on the other possession, which allowed them to take more time off the clock. Temple never pressured them during the slowdown game.
"It took courage on my part to do it, and I don't mind saying it," said Smith, who became the first coach in NCAA history to win regional titles in four different decades. "I could have second-guessed myself. . . . But this team is good in close games."
And they were against Temple.
"They are a great team with a lot of weapons in key places," said Macon, who became the 21st player in NCAA history to score 2,600 points in his career. "When one guy goes out another with a gun loaded with bullets comes in."
The victory was Smith's 47th in NCAA tournament history, tying him with former UCLA coach John Wooden for the all-time lead.