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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT / AT DENVER

North Carolina Zooms Past Air Force, 63-52

March 19, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — You could sense the desperation.

It had been 42 long years since Air Force last appeared in the NCAA tournament, but even longer for North Carolina -- three years.

Fighting for the pride of a prestigious and proud program, sixth-seeded North Carolina rallied from a six-point second-half deficit Thursday night to defeat 11th-seeded Air Force, 63-52, in a first-round Atlanta Regional game at Pepsi Center.

With Air Force going "Zoom Zoom" and nipping at its Tar Heels, North Carolina went on an 11-0 run to secure what had been a close game.

North Carolina will play in the second round Saturday against Texas, which beat Princeton, 66-49.

Air Force, one of this year's feel-good stories out of the Mountain West Conference, had a six-point lead, 44-38, with 12:50 left after Joel Gerlach completed a four-point play with a free throw after he was fouled while making a three-point shot.

Before Air Force and its fans could fathom the improbable, North Carolina pumped up its own volume and took control of the game.

Sean May cut the Falcon lead with a three-point play. That was followed by a baseline dunk by Jackie Manuel and consecutive three-point baskets by Raymond Felton, both after Air Force turnovers.

Felton made his second three, with 10:21 left, just before the shot-clock expired.

It put the Tar Heels up by five points and seemed to deflate an Air Force team playing on adrenaline.

Air Force had a 28-23 lead at the half, holding North Carolina to 32% shooting (10 for 31).

The Falcons scored the last five points of the half after May's layup had given North Carolina a 23-22 lead with 1:10 left.

Nick Welch's three-pointer put Air Force back up and, after a steal, Jacob Burtschi hit another three-point shot with five seconds left.

The programs could not have any more different basketball pedigrees.

Thursday marked North Carolina's 36th NCAA appearance after a two-year absence from the tournament, an absence that largely led to Coach Roy Williams' replacing coach Matt Doherty.

North Carolina is one of the peach-basket pillars of the game, and has sent 85 players to the NBA -- Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins, to name three.

Air Force has produced only one player who advanced to the NBA, and that was as a coach -- Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, a 1970 academy graduate who averaged 14 points a game as a senior.

For years, because of height restrictions for pilots, the Air Force was not allowed to have players taller than 6 feet 4.

Interestingly, though, Air Force has played an important part in North Carolina lore.

In the late 1950s, a promising young assistant on Bob Spear's Air Force staff was interested in the North Carolina basketball position.

Spear recommended the coach for the job, and he got it.

The coach was Dean Smith, who became at North Carolina the winningest coach in college basketball history.

Texas 66, Princeton 49 -- Princeton led Texas, 7-6, with 10 minutes to play in the first half, or was it the top of the sixth?

Unfortunately, Princeton's hope of keeping this game a baseball score didn't quite work out.

Texas shook off a first-half slumber and then shot Princeton back to New Jersey in the second, scoring a runaway victory in a first-round Atlanta Regional game played at Pepsi Center.

Princeton held a 25-22 halftime lead but could not contain a more athletic Texas team and its star seniors, Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey.

Mouton scored 18 of his game high 23 points in the second half and Ivey scored 13 of his 15 points after intermission.

"We try to lean on our seniors as much as possible," Texas Coach Rick Barnes said.

Texas (24-7) was helped by making 11 of 15 three-point attempts, while Princeton (20-8) hit only five of 26 from beyond the arc.

"They shot ridiculously from the three-point line," Princeton guard Scott Greenman said.

Mouton, Texas' leading scorer this season, dominated a stretch of the second half in which the Longhorns went from one point down to a 13-point lead, 46-33, on a Mouton breakaway layup with 11:40 left.

"I took it upon myself to come out in the second half and try to get it going a little bit," Mouton said.

Will Venable led Princeton with 16 points. Wallace Judson, who led the Tigers with a 15.5 scoring average, was held to nine points. He made only four of 13 field-goal attempts.

Andre Logan finished with eight points on three-of-11 shooting, and Greenman made only two of his eight shots and ended with six points.

"We don't ever want to feel like this again," Greenman, the sophomore guard, said of the loss.

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