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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

USC goes sour in a hurry

Trojans' lead vanishes against North Carolina's 18-0 run late in the second half, and Tar Heels advance to East Regional final with a 74-64 victory.

March 24, 2007|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Nobody expected him to be here, and yet, when it was over, it hurt so much that Gabe Pruitt had to pull his jersey over his face to hide his anguish.

The USC junior guard wanted to take one more unlikely step forward in the NCAA tournament so badly that he couldn't even bring himself to walk through the handshake line, planting himself on the Trojans' bench inconsolably.

For nearly 30 minutes Friday night at Continental Airlines Arena, fifth-seeded USC reprised its role as the upstart that more closely resembled a powerhouse during an NCAA East Regional semifinal against top-seeded North Carolina.

The Trojans led by 10 points with 11 minutes 16 seconds remaining, only to watch their advantage vanish in what seemed like an instant during a 74-64 defeat.

North Carolina became the fourth top-seeded team to advance to the Elite Eight after finally exerting its will defensively and scoring on many put-backs during an 18-0 run that started when USC freshman forward Taj Gibson went to the bench with four fouls.

"They just played great down the stretch," USC junior swingman Nick Young said of the Tar Heels, who went from 10 points down to eight up in a span of 6:36. "That's something you should expect from a No. 1 team."

North Carolina (31-6) will meet second-seeded Georgetown (29-6) on Sunday afternoon in a rematch of the 1982 national championship game won by the Tar Heels. North Carolina advanced in large part because it had 20 offensive rebounds to 10 for the Trojans.

"Our kids started believing in themselves and came back bit by bit," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "We feel very, very lucky, but we are still playing."

USC (25-12) led by nine at the half, built a 16-point margin at 49-33 early in the second half and still led, 57-45, when Gibson picked up his fourth foul with 12:25 to go. By the time he returned, North Carolina had sliced its deficit to 59-56, scoring nine of its 11 points during that stretch on second-chance opportunities.

There was a dunk and a put-back by Tar Heels freshman forward Brandan Wright, who finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, and a tip-in and put-back by sophomore guard Marcus Ginyard, who had 10 points and nine rebounds.

"We never got hurt by their offense, we just got hurt on the boards," USC Coach Tim Floyd said. "They kept coming at us with Ginyard and [Danny] Green and Wright in the second half."

Even when he reentered with 8:23 left, Gibson couldn't stall North Carolina's momentum. Ginyard scored on a tip-in to pull the Tar Heels to within 59-58 and then Green put them ahead to stay when he stole an inbounds pass and followed a missed dunk by Wayne Ellington with a put-back.

"By the time I got back in the game, they had a lot of intensity and we could not rebound the ball," said Gibson, who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds. "We just gave the game away."

Ellington capped North Carolina's 18-0 run with a reverse layup that made it 67-59. The Trojans cut the deficit to six with 3:06 remaining when Pruitt followed his miss with a rebound and a layup, and USC had three more opportunities to draw closer.

But a jump shot by Young hit the rim and caromed over the backboard, and a three-point attempt by Young rolled out. Then, in the final indignity, Floyd earned a technical foul after disputing an illegal screen called on Gibson that resulted in his fifth foul with 48 seconds to go.

The Trojans had won their first two NCAA tournament games in convincing fashion by out-rebounding Arkansas and Texas and making more free throws than their opponents attempted. They failed on both counts against the Tar Heels, being out-rebounded, 46-39, and attempting only nine free throws to North Carolina's 17.

North Carolina nearly suffered a far more devastating loss earlier in the day when student mascot Jason Ray was hit by a car in Fort Lee, N.J. He was listed in critical condition Friday night.

The Trojans sat in their locker room after the game with vacant stares, knowing that they had exceeded everyone's expectations but their own. Young, who had 15 points and seven rebounds, was left to ponder a future that could include the NBA draft or one more season with the Trojans.

Young said there was "a big chance" that he could return, noting that playing in the NCAA tournament had been "a lot of fun."

Until Friday, at least.

"It still hasn't hit me that we lost," Gibson said. "It hurts knowing that this is the end of the season. But we'll be back and are looking forward to making it to the Elite Eight and playing for a national championship."

*

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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