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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Win Leaves Tar Heels Shaking All Over

East Regional: Congratulations are in order for Guthridge after 75-64 victory over Connecticut puts North Carolina in Final Four.

March 22, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Not bad for a rookie.

Then again, North Carolina Coach Bill Guthridge is a rookie like no other.

The Tar Heels snipped away the nets Saturday at Greensboro Coliseum after a 75-64 victory over Connecticut in the NCAA East Regional final that sent North Carolina to its 14th Final Four, tying the record set by UCLA. It's the Tar Heels' fifth of the 1990s, and their second in a row.

Guthridge is going to his 13th--10 as Dean Smith's assistant, one as a Kansas State player, one as a Kansas State assistant, and now, his first as head coach.

As the final seconds ticked away, North Carolina assistant Phil Ford leaped to his feet to be the first to pump the hand of the still-seated Guthridge, who reacted with that calm, bemused air of his. A clap, a fist in the air, that little smile and handshakes all around.

Did we say all around?

Guthridge shook his assistants' hands, he shook his players' hands, he shook the fans' hands. He shook the paramedics' hands as he walked off the court, then he shook the security guards' hands, and stopped and posed for a picture.

"Take another," he told them, and he might have shaken their hands again before he left.

That, for those who understand the man who looks so calm to everyone else, is Guthridge at his most exuberant.

"He's always very restrained. I think that comes from years of experience," assistant coach Dave Hanners said. "Coach 'Gut' recruited me. I've known him since I was 18. The way he is, that's what I know, and I really like him the way he is."

The Tar Heels themselves reacted with a bit more obvious revelry, with guard Shammond Williams climbing into the band section to play the drums, and center Makhtar Ndiaye playing the trombone, or trying to.

"I'm sure he was good," Guthridge said.

Then, in congratulating the other team much as Smith always used to before retiring shortly before the season, Guthridge said: "I think we played a great game and beat a great team in Connecticut.

"If a shot or two had gone in for them, it would have been a different story. I'm so proud our team. They have worked so hard all season long from the time the coaching change was made."

Connecticut has so much quickness and two terrific scorers in freshman guard Khalid El-Amin and sophomore swingman Richard Hamilton that the Huskies gave the Tar Heels trouble here and there. But every time Connecticut made a run, North Carolina answered emphatically.

"They got energized and made senior-type plays," said Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, who has never reached the Final Four despite three trips to the regional finals in the last nine years. "I thought they did what we didn't do, and experienced teams do. They kept pushing.

"We really needed another scoring option, and we just didn't have it. I didn't know how good we were, but I feel after the way we played and the way they played, we are one of the best two or three teams in the country to finish up the season. I think Carolina is the best."

Connecticut (32-5) trailed by 11 points with 15 minutes left. But the Huskies got the North Carolina lead down to one, 59-58, with 5 1/2 minutes to play when El-Amin drove to the basket and took a bump from the Tar Heels' Vince Carter but got the basket and added a free throw. El-Amin would finish with a team-leading 24 points, making 10 of 16 shots, including three three-point baskets.

With a chance to take the lead, though, Hamilton missed a three-point shot. Slowed by a bruised leg in the second half, the hero of Thursday's last-second victory over Washington finished with 15 points, trying 21 shots but making only five--all from three-point range.

North Carolina (34-3) missed a shot on its next possession too, but a minute later, the Tar Heels' Williams started a spectacular fast break with a length-of-the-court pass to Carter, who leaped with defenders on him and made a touch pass to Antawn Jamison, whose dunk sent the overwhelmingly pro-Tar Heel crowd of 23,235 into hysteria. It was the start of a 12-2 run.

"They're a good team," El-Amin said. "But we had a chance to win, and we didn't do it. We didn't execute well down the stretch. We could have taken our time and run our offense and maybe gotten shots inside when we cut the lead to one."

North Carolina struggled early, missing its first seven shots, and Jamison couldn't convert an alley-oop attempt. But a 10-0 run helped the Tar Heels take a 27-18 lead, and they led by four at the half.

Jamison had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and Williams scored 19, but the unexpected boost came from Ademola Okulaja. In a one-for-27 slump two weeks ago, he made five of eight shots--including two three-point baskets in second half, one after Connecticut had cut an 11-point lead to four.

The victory sends North Carolina into a Final Four semifinal against Utah on Saturday in San Antonio, a year after the Tar Heels were eliminated by Arizona in a semifinal game.

Guthridge, 60, is the seventh first-year coach to take his team to the Final Four, and the first since Michigan's Steve Fisher in 1989. He can match Fisher's more impressive feat if the Tar Heels also win the national title.

"He's our head coach, but we have to try to prove ourselves too," Okulaja said. "The disappointment of last year's terrible performance against Arizona, it left a bad taste in our mouths.

"We're trying to rinse it out, but it's not out yet. We have to go out and play our very best to move on."

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