SYRACUSE, N.Y., March 25 -- Villanova's presence in the round of 16 and its underdog status entering Friday night's Syracuse Region semifinal game against top-seeded North Carolina triggered references to the Wildcats' upset of Georgetown in the 1985 national championship game.
But that memorable final, so vivid in the memories of college basketball fans, is just another piece of ancient history to this group of North Carolina players trying to carve out their own chapter.
Villanova's Kyle Lowry is rejected by Raymond Felton during second-half action. "Needless to say, we feel as fortunate as we can possibly feel," said North Carolina Coach Roy Williams.
(Kevin Rivoli -- AP)
"I didn't even know they won it years ago," North Carolina junior forward Sean May said prior to Friday's game. "Just shows how much I pay attention to basketball. But that was years ago."
May and his teammates almost received a refresher course in tournament history Friday night, but they survived a scare from No. 5 seed Villanova before pulling out a 67-66 victory in front of a record crowd of 30,916 at the Carrier Dome.
North Carolina (30-4) will face No. 6 seed Wisconsin at 2:40 p.m. in the region final Sunday. The Tar Heels will be attempting to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2000.
"Needless to say, we feel as fortunate as we can possibly feel," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "Those were some pretty hairy moments there at the end."
North Carolina trailed 33-29 at the half and didn't take its first lead until freshman Marvin Williams made two free throws to push the Tar Heels ahead 44-42 with 11 minutes 43 seconds left.
However, the Tar Heels quickly found themselves in a new kind of trouble when point guard Raymond Felton picked up his fourth foul with 8:22 left.
As Felton went to the bench, North Carolina led 50-45. The Tar Heels turned over the ball on two straight possessions, and Villanova drew even on baskets by Randy Foye, who finished with 28 points, and Kyle Lowry, who drew a foul while making a layup and made the ensuing free throw to tie the score at 50 with 7:24 left.
Still, by the time Felton returned with 4:14 remaining, North Carolina led 61-52 and when Williams hit a three-pointer with 3:45 left, he seemingly created some breathing room along with a 64-54 lead.
But Villanova refused to go away. Mike Nardi made a three-pointer, Lowry made two free throws and Foye hit another to draw Villanova within 66-63. Foye missed his second free throw, but forward Will Sheridan grabbed the offensive rebound and the Wildcats called a timeout with 11 seconds remaining.
Villanova ran an inbounds play for Allan Ray, who began to drive against Rashad McCants before he was whistled for traveling with nine seconds left, prompting angry fans to throw three plastic bottles onto the court in protest.
"I thought the ref called a foul [on McCants], but he called a travel," Ray said. "I felt I didn't travel, but we shouldn't have put ourselves in that position. That's not why we lost the game."
McCants made 1 of 2 free throws, which Carolina needed because Lowry drilled a three-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining and Ray nearly stole May's inbounds pass.
For Roy Williams, the first half had to feel eerily similar to upset losses his Kansas teams suffered during the tournament at the hands Rhode Island (1998) and Arizona (1997).
In those games, Rhode Island's Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley and Arizona's Miles Simon and Mike Bibby made big shot after big shot and Williams's top-seeded Jayhawks had off nights.
"I didn't have any flashbacks," a relieved Williams said after the game. "I had a hard enough time remembering what happened this morning."
With its second-leading scorer Curtis Sumpter out with a knee injury, Villanova used a four-guard lineup to spread the floor and create driving lanes. The Villanova press appeared to confuse the Tar Heels, who are accustomed to dictating tempo with their own pressure defenses.
Foye opened the scoring by making a long jumper and then buried a three-pointer with North Carolina's 6-foot-9 Jawad Williams running at him to give the Wildcats a quick 5-2 lead.
Foye scored 17 points during the half and hit four of his first five shots while Lowry scored six first-half points on 3-of-4 shooting. However, after making nine of their first 16 shots en route to building a 21-9 lead, Villanova made only three of their next 16.
The back court of McCants and Felton combined to make only 2 of 14 first-half shots, but the Tar Heels stayed close because May scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds before halftime.
"Just survive and win," May said after the game. "It wasn't pretty, but we got out of it with a win and we're still playing."