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Gators, Tar Heels Go Forth

South Regional: North Carolina finds its Forte and dispatches Tulsa, 59-55, to complete improbable run to the Final Four.

March 27, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — The name is Joseph, not Joe.

Think Michael, not Mike.

North Carolina is improbably, illogically, incomprehensibly back in the Final Four, and the Tar Heels did it with an echo of another era.

Freshman Joseph Forte scored 28 points Sunday as North Carolina won a 59-55 tussle with Tulsa in the NCAA South Regional final before 16,731 at the Erwin Center.

Now hear this: Michael Jordan never scored as many points in an NCAA tournament game.

Jordan's best was 27 against Temple his final season.

"It feels good, but I'm no fool: I'm no Michael Jordan," Forte said. "Different team, different era."

Jordan averaged 13.5 points his freshman season, playing with James Worthy and Sam Perkins.

Forte averages 16.7 and is about to become the first freshman to lead North Carolina in scoring.

With quick-footed, big-hearted, but undersized Tulsa keying on 7-foot center Brendan Haywood, Forte--a 6-4 guard--scored off a variety of drives, stop-and-pop shots and mid-range jumpers.

Now he's on his way to the Final Four, where that Jordan fellow came through in 1982, if you know your history.

"Definitely. He hit the big shot," said Forte, who was born in 1981 and was known as Joe growing up but gave up his nickname when he got to college.

"I prefer to be called Joseph now, because as I get older it sounds more mature," said Forte, who didn't need to be reminded Jordan did something similar.

"Right. Smart move by Mr. Jordan."

Tulsa (32-5) wrangled with North Carolina down to the wire, defying logic early when 6-5 Eric Coley scored over the Tar Heels' 6-11 Kris Lang, and moments later when 6-2 Greg Harrington blocked a shot by 6-7 Julius Peppers.

But Tulsa's shooting deserted the Golden Hurricane as the game progressed, and foul trouble by Coley and an awful spell in the second half let North Carolina pull ahead.

"Their offense didn't beat us. Not with 59 points," said Tulsa Coach Bill Self, whose team shot 37%. "It was our inability to get the ball in the basket that beat us today."

Tulsa was down 10 with 4:49 left after a jump shot by Forte, but fought back at the end with rare steals off Tar Heel point guard Ed Cota.

Tony Heard's steal turned into a layup by Dante Swanson, then Swanson victimized Cota for a steal and dunk that left the lead at 55-52 with 1:03 to play.

A three-point basket with 21 seconds left by Swanson--who led Tulsa with 15 points off the bench--cut the lead to 57-55.

"It got a little shaky out there, and they were hitting some big shots, so I definitely got scared of them coming back," Forte said.

North Carolina made four of six free throws in the final 26 seconds, but had to withstand a missed three-point shot that David Shelton forced with seven seconds left before Jason Capel got the rebound and the Tar Heels finished it off at the line.

With that, North Carolina is on its way to an NCAA-record 15th Final Four, its sixth in the last 10 years, and easily its most befuddling: The Tar Heels entered the tournament with an 18-13 record and seeded eighth in the region.

"I am so happy for our team and so proud of them," said Coach Bill Guthridge, who ended an emotional week by leaving for Kansas after the game to attend the funeral of his mother, Betty, who died Wednesday at 96 after a long illness. He will return to North Carolina tonight.

"The team really hung in there all year through some difficult times and helped keep me up," Guthridge said. "To be going to the Final Four is a real thrill for all of us. It's something we never get tired of."

Guthridge is in the Final Four for the second time in three years as coach, Cota is in his third in four years, and the freshmen and sophomores are in their first.

"It has been a long, strange trip," Lang said. "We have been considered underdogs in every game and we have been proving people wrong. We're in the Final Four now, but we can't be satisfied with that. We need to concentrate on a national championship."

The confident Forte is turning his eyes toward the title too, but he'll be required to carry the Tar Heels' heavy green training bag to Indianapolis.

It's part of the North Carolina tradition that freshmen should be seen and not heard--and sometimes not even seen. Jordan wasn't pictured on a preseason Sports Illustrated cover his freshman season for that reason.

This season, Forte was selected as the freshman to carry the bag by secret vote of the players.

Cota says it was Forte's cockiness that decided it.

"I was just trying to get some attention, let the guys know I came here to play," Forte said.

"I said I would average like 12 points a game. They were like, 'Yeah, right, you're going to be passing it to the post, getting it to me.' "

Sunday afternoon, they got it to Forte, and he made 10 of 17 shots--nine of 10 inside the three-point line. He also grabbed eight rebounds and made seven of eight free throws.

The only miss made North Carolina sweat a bit, leading by three with four seconds left, but Forte made the crucial second free throw.

His only real rookie mistake came after the buzzer: He flung the game ball into the stands.

"It was just me getting caught up in the excitement and throwing it to the fans," he said. "They came all the way to Texas. I was just showing our appreciation."

On to Indianapolis, and for once, the Tar Heels can't fail to meet expectations.

"No one's expecting you to win, based on our season," Forte said. "Which I wouldn't have expected us to win, either. It's just no pressure."

No pressure--except not to forget that green trainer's bag.

Maybe the Tar Heels should lighten it a bit.

"Oh no," Guthridge said. "In fact, we may put some bricks in the bag."

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