In the first flush of victory Friday night, Dean Smith let it slip. "I never thought," he said, "that this team would get this far."
Smith was dripping with sweat as he spoke, exhausted but elated. One year ago, with Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins in the lineup of what Smith thought might be the best college team ever, North Carolina was beaten in the NCAA tournament round of 16 by Indiana. He almost broke down after that defeat.
Sunday, without Perkins and Jordan, North Carolina will play in the Southeast Regional final against Villanova (WDVM-TV-9 at 1:58 p.m.).
"I guess," Smith admitted today, "it is a little ironic that this team, without Sam and Michael, is in the final eight when that one wasn't. But I don't think this team has gotten enough credit. We have won 27 games."
Now, with a 27-8 record, having reached his ninth regional final, Smith can afford to preen a little. Most people did not expect North Carolina to be one game from the Final Four. Smith never called it a rebuilding year. Others did.
Sunday's opponent, Villanova, is 22-10 and looked at this as the year. The Wildcats have a fulcrum of three seniors and their other two starters are juniors. This is their third regional final in four years but the first one in which they are not going in as a significant underdog.
"The last time we played them in the regional final (1982) they had Perkins, Jordan and James Worthy," Villanova's best player, Ed Pinckney, said today. "Then, it was just great for us to be there playing against them. Now, we've been through it, so have they. We both want the Final Four. We've both been there before."
Carolina has been this far four times in the last five years and nine times in Smith's 24 years as coach. Smith's record in regional finals is 7-1, the loss coming two years ago to Georgia.
This team has advanced by mixing its great size (four players 6 feet 10 or taller), superb guard play from Kenny Smith and Dean Smith's superb coaching. Friday, in the 62-56 regional semifinal victory over Auburn, the Tar Heels exploited the Tigers' penchant for crashing the offensive boards to fast break to a 23-8 lead. Auburn, in spite of a brilliant second half, never caught up.
Kenny Smith, with 22 points and six assists, played the best game of his two-year career. "My concentration is much better now than early in the year," said Smith, who broke his wrist last season. "After I came back from not playing all summer, it took me a while to get my judgment back. I think I know better now when to do things."
That is the hallmark of Dean Smith-coached teams: judgment. North Carolina rarely makes mental mistakes. This team, without the individual shooters last year's had, is shooting 54.2 percent from the field -- one-tenth of a percent less than last year's, which was the best shooting team in school history.
Much of that is a result of Carolina's inside offense, the screens the big men run for each other down low that get people open for easy shots. The major difference in this team has been defense. Usually a pressure team, the Tar Heels have created 100 fewer turnovers than their opponents.
"We don't have the individual talent that last year's team did," said Brad Daugherty, the leading scorer at 17.3 points per game. "But we've been unselfish all year."
For Villanova, the only low seed (No. 8) to reach a regional final, tempo has been crucial in victories over Dayton, Michigan and Maryland. The average score of those games was 52-49. The Wildcats walk the ball up court, spend a lot of time looking for shots, pack back in their zone and spread the ball with a lead when the clock gets near five minutes.
"We want the same tempo Sunday," Massimino said today. "If the break is there, we'll take it. But for the most part, we'll do things the same way we have all through the tournament."
Villanova will use a tight zone on Carolina's big men and the Tar Heels, who have probably played more zone than at any time in the last 15 years, will do the same thing to Pinckney. "I expect them to be all around me," Pinckney said. "It will be like being in the middle of a forest."
Smith talked over and over about how much he has enjoyed this season. Last year, he was bitterly disappointed by the loss to Indiana, as was everyone connected with the program.
For Carolina, it has already been an excellent year. A trip to the Final Four, as Smith put it, "would be gravy."
For Villanova, it is slightly different. "After this tournament, we move on to other things," senior point guard Gary McLain said. "We want to take that extra step."