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For Heels, a return to normalcy

Written off even by ardent fans, North Carolina has come back to be within one game of the Final Four.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


AUSTIN, Texas -- As recently as a couple of weeks ago, folks throughout North Carolina had penned an unlikely, almost unthinkable, obituary.

The UNC basketball team had failed to live up to the lofty standard that's measured by the banners and retired jerseys hanging from the rafters in the Dean Smith Center, they bemoaned.

It never demonstrated the legendary passion that has become synonymous with the teams that have pulled on the Carolina blue and white uniforms, they cried.

Worse still, some pundits vehemently insisted that with an 18-13 record, the reeling Tar Heels didn't even deserve an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Well, reports of UNC's demise were a tad premature. With a win today at the Erwin Center against Tulsa in the South Region final, UNC will be back in the Final Four.

"North Carolina is as great a program as there is in America," Tulsa coach Bill Self said. "They do it the right way and they've done it for years."

It just didn't seem like this would be one of those years. So, the sudden reversal of fortunes has left just about everyone wondering what the heck happened.

"I don't really know," conceded coach Bill Guthridge, who has drawn the most criticism during the season. "But I've liked this team all year and I thought we were close."

But to what? The Heels climbed to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll after winning the Maui Invitational but suffered a four-game losing streak in January. They fell out of the top 25 for the first time in a decade, closed the regular season with a 2-3 record. And those wins were against reeling Florida State, 70-67, and then against Georgia Tech, 74-72 in overtime. Not exactly confidence builders.

They lost in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference to Wake Forest. Guthridge broke with tradition and kept his team in Charlotte for a workout the morning after. Back in Chapel Hill the next day, Selection Sunday, the team practiced again.

"They were down after the loss to Wake Forest," Guthridge said. "I just wanted them to get the Wake Forest loss out (of their systems) and start concentrating on the final tournament of the year. It was important for them to realize that I still believed in them."

Even if few others did.

While the players insist they ignored the engulfing criticism, they recognized the NCAA Tournament was a chance, their last chance, to revise their legacy.

"The regular season means nothing if you get to the tournament and lose in the first round; we found that out last year," junior center Brendan Haywood said. "So we knew that we could make a statement and make amends for some of the mistakes we made during the course of the season."

The Heels say they are finally doing the little things such as boxing out and getting a hand up to contest every shot -- the things Guthridge has stressed all year -- with more fervor and consistency.

"There's been a sense of urgency as a team that we need to prove to ourselves that we belong here," senior point guard Ed Cota said. "Our team is more focused now. Earlier in the season, I don't think we were taking it as seriously as we should have been."

Even Guthridge, renowned for his laid-back demeanor, has been more animated, more vocal and more demanding of late.

"They've come to every practice eager to go and have really worked hard," he said. "I'm disappointed that I was not able to push the right buttons to get them going early, but they hung in there and we're pleased to be where we are."

Another factor, however, in the Heels' return to normalcy is that they find themselves in an unusual spot. They've been the underdog throughout the tournament.

Although seeded eighth, many folks liked No. 9 seed Missouri's chances. UNC won convincingly 84-70. Okay. Surely top-seeded Stanford would send UNC home in Round 2. Nope. The Heels dug in and beat the Cardinal, 60-53.

Then Friday against No. 4-seeded Tennessee, the Heels looked beaten. Haywood fouled out with 8:03 left, pulling his jersey over his face as he walked toward the bench. Without him, they fell behind by seven with four minutes left, but the Heels outscored stunned Tennessee 17-5 to pull out a 74-69 upset.

"We had been pretty much written off by a lot of people so we didn't feel there was any pressure," sophomore forward Jason Capel said. "We've been a confident team all year, even through the losses and adversity. That's paying off."

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