Even before the final buzzer today, they cried. Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino was brushing back tears with one hand and trying to tell his players what to do with the other. The three seniors had hugged at midcourt, remembering a pact they made as freshmen to get to the Final Four.
They all got there today. And, if ever a team deserved the trip, it was Villanova, which beat North Carolina, 56-44, to win the Southeast Regional title before 9,407 in the half-empty Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center this afternoon.
The Wildcats (23-10) won by surviving a horrid first half and, after a stern talking-to from Massimino, by playing an almost flawless second half. They shot 23 percent the first 20 minutes; 76 percent in the second.
"We should have been ahead by 14 or 16 at halftime the way they shot," said North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, whose team finished 27-9. "The second half we played like we weren't mentally prepared, and that's my fault. I think after we beat Auburn Friday the players started counting on the Final Four. I didn't do a good enough job impressing on them how hard it would be to beat Villanova."
The Wildcats, who had been among the final eight three times previously under Massimino but never to the Final Four, will play Midwest champion Memphis State in a national semifinal Saturday.
"We made a pact as freshmen that we would do this," said Villanova center Ed Pinckney, superb defensively again today. "This was our third regional final. When there were a few seconds left, I hugged Dwayne (McClain) and Gary (McLain) and reminded them how hard we had worked to live up to the pact."
For 20 minutes today, the Wildcats looked as if they would fall well short. They shot just six of 26 from the field and had a chance to fall behind by 10 when North Carolina worked the clock down with a 22-14 lead in the last minute of the half.
But de'ja vu came into play. Friday, against Maryland, point guard Keith Gatlin had been unable to see the clock while the Terrapins held the ball and shot too soon, leading to a last-second Villanova basket.
This time, North Carolina point guard Kenny Smith, held to four points, made his move too soon and turned the ball over with seven seconds left. Then, McClain, scoreless until then, hit a follow of Harold Pressley's miss and was fouled at the buzzer. His free throw made the halftime score 22-17.
"That was a big play for us," said Massimino, exhausted but joyful. "To get out of that half down by just five really helped us."
The halftime break helped more. Several things happened. First, Massimino, who almost never screams at his players at halftime, screamed at them. "It was a pep talk," said Harold Jensen with a smile.
Second, Massimino did something else he never does: he changed his lineup, benching wing guard Dwight Wilbur (zero for three the first half) in favor of Jensen. "I don't know why I did it," Massimino said. "It was a whim, intuition. I've never done it before but I thought we needed the guys who were playing best out there."
Jensen, who had not started a half in two years at Villanova, was surprised, but excited. "It was an opportunity," he said. "I hadn't played well in a couple of games (zero-for-seven shooting) and he was showing confidence in me."
That confidence proved well-founded when Jensen, after missing his first shot, hit five straight jumpers while the Wildcats were making their run. In the meantime, the usually calm and commanding Tar Heels were coming unraveled.
"We lost our concentration," said Kenny Smith, who shot two for seven from the field. "They were more aggressive defensively in the second half and we didn't respond well."
Much of that aggressiveness came from Villanova point guard Gary McLain. He made a defensive adjustment in the second half that changed the game.
"I had to get something going for us defensively," McLain said. "In the first half, when they passed the ball on the wing and couldn't look inside, they would just go back out to Smith and start over. I decided to try to not let them make that pass back."
McLain's gamble worked. During the first 11 minutes of the second half, North Carolina had nine turnovers to one for Villanova. Many of the turnovers came when North Carolina's perimeter players, in trouble, either forced passes inside or overthrew Smith because of McLain's presence.
"We were throwing the kind of bad passes we almost never throw," Dean Smith said. "I couldn't believe some of our passes."
While North Carolina was rotten, Villanova was brilliant. Trailing, 26-21, with 18 minutes to play, the Wildcats went on a 22-7 run during the next 9:30. It started with a strong move inside by Pinckney, followed by a jumper by McClain. Then, Pressley (15 points) stole one of those bad North Carolina passes -- this one by Ranzino Smith -- for a dunk that put Villanova ahead, 27-26, with 16:35 left.
Remarkably, that was the last lead change. Another turnover led to a layup by McClain. After yet another turnover, McClain hit from the top of the key and it was 31-26, Wildcats.
During the next four minutes, Jensen hit four times from the perimeter and North Carolina continued to struggle on offense. Trailing, 41-33, North Carolina's Curtis Hunter turned the ball over to McClain in the corner. He found Jensen, who looked up and saw Pressley wide open. Pressley's dunk made it 43-33 with 8:10 left and Dean Smith called time, knowing his team was rattled.
As it turned out, his team was beaten. "It just seemed like after beating Notre Dame and Auburn we couldn't get fired back up to play," said Brad Daugherty, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds. "As big as the game was it felt like we needed another day to get ready. They took advantage and whipped us."
And the absence of wing guard Steve Hale caught up with the Tar Heels. Hale separated his shoulder in a first-round victory. Today, his replacements, Buzz Peterson and Ranzino Smith, shot three for 13 and turned the ball over six times.
But Villanova earned this victory. Two moments, both involving Jensen, sum up the game. The first came with 3:30 left and North Carolina trying desperately to come back, trailing, 45-35. Ranzino Smith threw another bad pass over Kenny Smith's head. He and Hunter started after it, then pulled up, thinking it would go out of bounds.
From behind came Jensen, flying past the sedentary Tar Heels. He scooped the ball up just before it hit the sideline and went in for an uncontested layup. "He outhustled us," Kenny Smith said. "That doesn't usually happen to us."
Which leads to the second moment. In the final minute, Villanova spread out to kill the clock. Each time Jensen passed the ball, he started jumping up and down, unable to control his joy.
"It was," he said, "The happiest moment of my life." Seconds later, the buzzer sounded, the three seniors embraced and everyone had a good cry.
"There are no words to express how this feels," Pinckney said.
No words were necessary.