If the script had been perfect, Ranzino Smith would have worn an Auburn uniform tonight. He would have stepped to the free throw line with 12 seconds left and a two-point lead and, having not scored in 11 straight games before this one, coolly swished both foul shots to clinch the victory.
But Ranzino Smith plays for North Carolina. And those two foul shots beat Auburn, 62-56, in the NCAA Southeast Regional semifinals.
Smith, a chunky freshman guard who had not scored since Feb. 10, made his free throws with Carolina, once ahead by 15 points in the first half, hanging onto a 58-56 lead. That put the Tar Heels (27-8) into the final eight for the fourth time in five years and for the ninth time in Coach Dean Smith's 24 years at the school.
The loss apparently ended the seven-year career at Auburn of Sonny Smith, who announced his resignation Feb. 8, then watched in amazement as his young team, which finished 22-12, swept through the Southeastern Conference tournament and the first two rounds of this tournament.
Auburn's Chuck Person, despite a poor shooting night (eight for 25 for 16 points), finally got rolling in the second half with his team down, 37-27.
"We played well in the second half," Dean Smith said. "Kenny Smith (22 points, six assists) played as good a game at point guard as he's played since he got here. But they kept making tough shots."
Auburn's tenacity set up an improbable finish with 16,843 in the packed Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center screaming for the Tigers.
After a short follow shot by Chris Morris with 6:01 left had cut Carolina's lead to 49-46, the Tar Heels slowed things down to force Auburn out of its zone. Smith immediately went backdoor for a layup off Brad Daugherty's pass and that made it 51-46 with 4:44 left. That began a basket-trading sequence that lasted until Ford hit a jump shot to make it 53-50 with 2:07 to play.
After UNC took more than a minute off the clock, 6-10 sophomore Joe Wolf was fouled with 58 seconds left. He made both shots to make it 55-50.
Morris hit an 18-footer to cut it back to 55-52 with 50 seconds to go. Five seconds later, Kenny Smith was fouled. He made both shots, but Ford answered right away, cutting the lead to 57-54. There were 35 seconds to play.
This time it took seven seconds to foul Kenny Smith. He made one of two and it was 58-54. Auburn point guard Frank White zipped a gorgeous pass through the Carolina zone to Carey Holland, who was fouled by Warren Martin as he laid the ball in with 18 seconds to go. Holland missed the free throw. The rebound came to Person, who traveled.
North Carolina's inbounds pass went to Ranzino Smith and he was fouled with 12 seconds on the clock.
"I just thought, 'Make it, make it, we need it,' " Smith said. "There's nothing I like better than shooting with 50 million people yelling against me."