The freshman leads the Tar Heels to an improbable South Region title over Tulsa.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000
AUSTIN, Texas -- As the final horn sounded, North Carolina freshman guard Joseph Forte nonchalantly strode toward midcourt, displaying no signs of youthful exuberance.
No fist pumping. No yelping. No ear-to-ear grinning.
But as his cavorting teammates converged on him, Forte, the offensive hero in Sunday's 59-55 win against Tulsa in the South Region final that propelled UNC into its most improbable Final Four berth, finally shed his cool demeanor.
He let loose.
He grabbed the basketball and flung it toward the cheering, adoring fans among the 16,731 in the Erwin Center stands.
"It was just me getting caught up in the excitement," he said, glancing down so the brim of his white championship cap masked his face save a shy smile. "I was just throwing it to the Carolina fans who came all the way to Texas. ... Just showing our appreciation."
Forte and the Tar Heels cherish those folks, "our real fans," they call them, who didn't desert them when the team struggled like few UNC teams have in the past few decades. Some insisted this team didn't even deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet now, the No. 8-seeded Tar Heels (22-13) are heading to Indianapolis for their sixth Final Four in 10 years.
"We are thrilled to death," said coach Bill Guthridge, who was vociferously criticized during the season, especially during a four-game skid in January that knocked the team out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in a decade. "I'm so happy for this team and so proud of them. They've really hung in there all year through some difficult times and helped keep me up and going to the Final Four is a real thrill for us and something you never get tired of."
They wouldn't have that chance if not for the clutch shooting of Forte, the region's Most Outstanding Player, and a defense that bedeviled the small but quick No. 7-seeded Golden Hurricane (32-5).
With UNC leading 43-41 and 8:41 left, Forte, who surprised his teammates with his cockiness when he arrived on campus, took command like few freshman do. Or can.
"I didn't want to go home," he said. "I shoot the most, so I figure I should make most of my shots."
And he did. First, he reached back and knocked the ball away from senior center Brandon Kurtz in the post and scored on a reverse layup at the other end. He followed with two free throws, a short jumper and a putback that capped a 10-2 run to give UNC a 53-43 lead with 4:49 left.
"Every time we thought we had a stop, he made plays," Tulsa senior forward Eric Coley said.
"He had a great game," Tulsa coach Bill Self said. "He scores so easily. He's probably the best freshman in the land, or at least had the best freshman year. Even though he makes tough shots, he makes them look easy and effortless."
That's why the Tar Heels, who rarely have relied on a freshmen to lead them in scoring, look to Forte.
"Joseph Forte has a lot of confidence, and he's a great scorer," UNC senior point guard Ed Cota said. "We try to get him the ball as much as possible in good scoring positions."
The Golden Hurricane had hoped to use its speed to offset UNC's height advantage, but it was caught in a deliberate, half-court game. And it struggled against UNC's man and zone defenses. It not only was held to a season-low point total but also a season-low field goal percentage (37.3).
In the waning moments, the Golden Hurricane finally converted turnovers into quick points. On successive plays, freshman guard Dante Swanson stripped a tired Cota near midcourt and scored in transition to cut the lead to 55-52 with 1:03 to go.
Forte hit both ends of a one-and-one to increase the lead to 57-52 with 26.5 seconds left, but Swanson hit a three-pointer five seconds later to bring the Tulsa fans to their feet. Cota made one free throw with 18 seconds left, giving Tulsa a shot to tie the score. Junior forward David Shelton, Tulsa's top scorer, leaned into Jason Capel and forced an off-balance three-pointer that hit the rim and bounded to Capel. Forte was fouled and, after missing one free throw, hit the second to seal the win. He then retreated down court for the final seconds without smiling or gesturing toward the crowd.