North Carolina called upon a seasoned veteran and a precocious freshman to nullify the defensive pressure of Georgetown and secure an 85-79 victory tonight in the semifinals of the 16th annual Maui Invitational.
The fourth-ranked Tar Heels will face the No. 22 Purdue Boilermakers in Wednesday's final. The Hoyas will play sixth-ranked Florida in the third-place game, but they came close to being in the final themselves.
Senior point guard Ed Cota and freshman guard Joseph Forte (DeMatha High) kept the Hoyas' upset from happening by keying a 59-point second half. Tied at 62 with 5 minutes 26 seconds left, Cota scored 10 of North Carolina's final 23 points to secure the win.
"I knew my teammates were looking for me to make plays, so I did," Cota said. He and center Brendan Haywood had a game-high 20 points. "Their pressure really bothered us in the first half. We had a lot of turnovers .
"But Coach [Bill Guthridge] told us to come out strong in the second half and we did. We just took it one possession at a time. I took it upon myself to make a difference. They played well. We just played better at the key moments."
Cota's two free throws with 41.1 seconds left gave North Carolina (2-0) an 80-73 lead, but back-to-back three-pointers by Nat Burton and Anthony Perry put the Hoyas (2-1) within 81-79 with 22.3 seconds remaining.
"We had a chance to get right back in it," Georgetown Coach Craig Esherick said. "But give North Carolina credit. The young freshman [Forte] stepped up to the line and made two big free throws. Our guys played hard until the end.
"I thought in the first half we did an excellent job on them defensively. They did a very good job in the second half coming out and then gained the lead. . . . We played a very good team. And we have another tough game against Florida."
North Carolina overcame a sluggish start to get back into the game, using a 13-1 run in the first four minutes of the second half to take a 39-38 lead. The Tar Heels did not allow a basket in the second half until Ruben Boumtje Boumtje's putback with 15:30 left. He added a free throw to give Georgetown a 41-39 lead.
Forte was a key to the Tar Heels' second-half run. His floater at 8:35 gave North Carolina a 53-51 lead. He had 11 points in the first 12 minutes of the second half and finished with 17 points.
"I didn't really know what to expect in a game like this," Forte said. "I just called on my high school days to get me through. We didn't play well in the first half, but Georgetown had a lot to do with that."
The Hoyas' last lead (57-56) came on a pair of free throws by Kevin Braswell with 7:09 left, but Haywood put the Tar Heels up by three points (62-59) on a basket and two free throws.
Perry, who led the Hoyas with 18 points, tied it with a three-pointer from the left side. It was the ninth tie in a game that had 11 lead changes. Unfortunately for Georgetown, North Carolina went on a 13-5 run led by Cota to pull ahead, 75-67, with 1:18 remaining.
"The first half, I kind of backed off him [Cota] and kept him from penetrating," said Braswell, who finished with 17 points and six assists. "In the second half, he took control. He's a good player. It was kind of hard keeping him out of the lane in the second half. He penetrated a lot. I just couldn't stop him."
This was the first loss for Georgetown in Hawaii in 22 games.