As a top-three seed in 10 of its last 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, North Carolina doesn't get many opportunities to make Cinderella postseason runs.
And, truthfully, no one expected it the last time the Tar Heels earned an 8 seed in the South--just as Carolina is seeded in this year's event, as Roy Williams's club will open play Friday night against 9th seeded Villanova--in 2000.
Unlike this year's squad, that Carolina team had limped to the finish. Bill Guthridge's third and final team lost three of its final five regular season games, then had a dismal performance in the ACC Tournament, where they lost a desultory 58-52 decision to NIT-bound Wake Forest. Considering that the Tar Heels had lost in the NCAA first round the previous year (the name Harold Arceneaux still prompts a wince in Chapel Hill), expectations were low.
That's when Guthridge showed the touch that had earned him the AP's National Coach of the Year award in 1998, and that will have him inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame later this summer.
"We worked a little harder and longer than we would have worked normally at this time of year," Guthridge said at the time, which was code for some very intense practices. It worked. Instead of feeling sorry for itself, the Tar Heels went into the NCAA Tournament a much more crisp team.
Round of 64: Carolina 84, Missouri 70
There was a familiar opponent on the opposing bench in Birmingham, as first-round opponent Missouri was coached by a rising star in the coaching business, former Duke guard Quin Snyder. The Tigers, a perimeter-oriented team, were supposed to play a more modern brand of basketball. So how did Guthridge beat them?
With old-fashioned Tar Heel inside power. Brendan Haywood exploded for a career-high 28 points and 15 rebounds, and Jason Capel added a double-double (14 points and 11 rebounds) as Carolina was never in serious danger. The Tar Heels dominated the backboards, holding a 55-30 rebounding edge, and used a zone defense to help limit Missouri to just 8-of-31 from the three-point line.
Round of 32: Carolina 60, Stanford 53
The next opponent in Birmingham was Stanford, which should have been a daunting task. But much as Carolina has experienced good recent NCAA Tournament success against Michigan State, the Tar Heels had played well against the Cardinal recently, including a preseason NIT win over third-ranked Stanford the previous season (in fact, Carolina has still never lost to Stanford, with a 10-0 all-time record) with much of the same roster the Tar Heels took into the 2000 game.
With a 27-3 record and the Pac-10 championship, Stanford was heavily favored. But Haywood was stellar again, notching 12 points, 8 rebounds and four blocked shots, while freshman star Joseph Forte added 17 points-including a pair of huge back-to-back three-pointers that gave Carolina a 53-47 lead late in the second half and capped a 10-0 Tar Heel run.
Carolina's defense was solid again, limiting Stanford to just 34.5 percent from the floor.
"I've always said that I really like this team," Guthridge said after the game. "They have kept their heads up through the adversity this year."
Sweet 16: Carolina 74, Tennessee 69
It was hard to ignore the symmetry: in 1990, 8th seeded Carolina had defeated top-seeded Oklahoma in Austin. Now, ten years later, 8th seeded Carolina earned its way to Austin by defeating top-seeded Stanford.
This time, the Tar Heels had to make a late push without Haywood, who fouled out with 8:03 left in the game. But that simply created an opportunity for Forte, Capel and Ed Cota, who made huge plays down the stretch to seal the five-point victory. Down by seven points with 4:48 remaining, the trio ignited a 9-0 run highlighted by two trademark "Cota Floatas" that gave Carolina a 66-64 lead with two minutes left.
The Tar Heels hit six big free throws down the stretch, including a pair by a pretty solid defensive end on the football team named Julius Peppers, to preserve the win and advance to the regional final.
Regional final: Carolina 59, Tulsa 55
With 13 years of history behind it, this regional final looks like a pretty easy win. Carolina got to play Tulsa to go to the regional final? But the Golden Hurricane actually was seeded higher than the Tar Heels (seventh), and had a reputation as a tenacious defensive club. They were also coached by a talented young coach with a solid future in the business--current Kansas head coach Bill Self.
Tulsa actually led, 31-30, at halftime, but Carolina once again got a big second-half run to take the lead. This time, it was a 14-4 spurt keyed by 10 points from Forte.
Cota sank a free throw to give Carolina a 58-55 lead with seconds remaining, and after Tulsa fired an errant potential game-tying three-pointer, Forte dropped in a free throw to make it a four-point margin and clinch the improbable Final Four berth. The Tar Heels again did it with defense, as Tulsa shot just 37 percent from the field.
The incredible run prompted one of the most emotional UNC locker rooms in recent memory. Guthridge had taken significant criticism during the season, but he was beloved by his players, who took obvious pride in helping him to his second Final Four in three years as the Tar Heel head coach.
"It took us a while to find each other this season," Cota said after the game. "The teams I was on here before knew how to win. This team found it late, but we couldn't have picked a better time."
Cota's trip to the Final Four was his third in four years.
Guthridge, who would fly to Kansas the next day to attend his mother's funeral, was typically low-key.
"Obviously, since we were an eighth seed, this was unexpected," the coach said. "But I believed and the team believed and that's why we're going."
The improbable run ended with a 71-59 Final Four loss to Florida, as this time it was Carolina plagued by poor shooting--the Tar Heels hit just 35.1% from the field and 22.7% from the three-point line in the Hoosier Dome.