HARTFORD, Conn. — Only 125 miles separate North Carolina's campus in Chapel Hill from its younger cousin, North Carolina Charlotte. But in the 33 years North Carolina Charlotte has played basketball, the teams have never met.
Never, that is, until this Saturday.
No. 1 North Carolina won its opening game in the NCAA tournament for the 18th consecutive year Thursday, dispatching Navy, 88-52, despite a sluggish start in the NCAA East Regional at the Hartford Civic Center.
And, after Charlotte's victory over Illinois Chicago in the second game, top-seeded North Carolina and eighth-seeded North Carolina Charlotte will meet Saturday for the right to advance to an East Regional semifinal next week at Greensboro, N.C.
"You know, it almost happened one time a long time ago, in my playing days when both teams went to the Final Four," said Charlotte Coach Melvin Watkins, who played on the 1977 team led by Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell that lost to Marquette in an NCAA semifinal. A victory would have matched North Carolina and North Carolina Charlotte for the national title, but Marquette defeated the Tar Heels.
Now the state of North Carolina is guaranteed a team in Greensboro.
"There's been a lot of talk about this game," Watkins said. "I think from that point of view, maybe the state will shut down and watch this game."
North Carolina (31-3) took the court against Navy Thursday for its first NCAA tournament game without Dean Smith on the bench since 1959.
Coincidentally, that North Carolina team, coached by Frank McGuire, played Navy in the first round of the 1959 tournament--and lost.
This time, Navy (19-11) was hoping to become the first 16th-seeded team to upset a No. 1-seeded team, and North Carolina's lead was only 30-26 with three minutes left in the first half.
With star forwards Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter saddled with two fouls, it looked as if Navy had a fighting chance. But North Carolina pulled ahead by 10 at halftime, then blasted the Midshipmen with a 19-3 run midway through the second half go ahead, 77-46.
"I hope they win the national championship so we can say we lost to the team that won it. It was fun," said Hassan Booker, Navy's 6-foot-3 power forward from Los Angeles. Booker, a mismatch against the 6-9 Jamison, got the better of Jamison early by taking him outside.
But in the end, Jamison had 17 points and 14 rebounds and Booker finished with 10.
"Next year, when I see him in the league, or two years from now, I'll be on my ship, and I'll remember it was fun playing against him," Booker said. "I think I'll remember the physical part, because I'm about to take some Advil right now."
Jamison tipped his cap to Booker.
"The guy is really strong," Jamison said. "I've faced some strong guys before, but he really hung in. I knew he wasn't going to be afraid to be physical with me. He's definitely one of those guys I'm glad are defending our country."
Jamison's matchup Saturday against North Carolina Charlotte will be DeMarco Johnson, who like Jamison played high school basketball in Charlotte.
Jamison hasn't forgotten.
"He kind of destroyed me out there," Jamison said. "He probably dropped 30 or 32 on me the first time I played against him."
North Carolina Charlotte 77, Illinois Chicago 62--Point guard Sean Colson had 13 assists and scored 18 points, and forward DeMarco Johnson had 30 points and 13 rebounds for the 49ers (20-10).
Anthony Coomes scored 19 points for Illinois Chicago. (22-6).
Michigan State 83, Eastern Michigan 71--The Spartans (21-7) didn't let Eastern Michigan threaten in the second half, and Michigan State advanced to a second-round game against Princeton on Saturday.
Eastern Michigan's Earl Boykins, the nation's second-leading scorer, made only six of 21 shots and finished with 18 points. Derrick Dial led the Eagles (20-10) with 29 points.