All things come to an end, the NCAA Tournament teaches us that much. Friday night, in the Southeast Regional in the Birmingham Civic Center, it came to an end for Auburn, a young team that is nevertheless small, with a lame-duck coach to boot.
It didn’t end easily, that’s for sure. Regional favorite North Carolina, which looked to put upstart Auburn in its place early on, never even had an opportunity to draw its four corners. That’s how close it was. The Tar Heels had only a two-point lead with 18 seconds left and, by virtue of some nice free throw shooting, managed to win, 62-56.
So the Tar Heels, who were making their fifth consecutive appearance in the Final 16, move on to meet Villanova here Sunday to see whether they can advance to the Final Four. Among those 16 who are going nowhere, besides Auburn, is Maryland, which Villanova defeated earlier in the evening, 46-43.
The North Carolina-Auburn game had been colored by emotion beyond what a Southeastern Conference team playing on a “home court” would suggest. Auburn Coach Sonny Smith had announced his resignation in early February and his players had turned the remainder of season, and this tournament, into a mission: Make Sonny Come Back. The thinking among some players was that a Final Four entry would force their coach to reconsider.
But for the first eight minutes the Auburn players (22-12) looked as if they had decided on a successor. Big North Carolina (27-8) went ahead, 19-5, almost before you knew it. It was easy to do, too. With a front line that consisted of two 6-10 players and one 6-11 player, it was simple to overpower Auburn inside. Chuck Person, 6-8, is the tallest Tiger. Nobody else is real close.
But then Auburn, which had been a so-so 13-7 until its coach announced his resignation, began to play with the kind of emotion that characterized their recent play. They begin to trade baskets. Person rose up to block a Warren Martin shot, no easy thing as Martin is 6-11 1/2. They were rising to the occasion.
Martin, a sixth man, still managed to score 12 points in that first half, but none were uncontested. By halftime, the North Carolina lead was down to 10 points.
Sonny Smith said the game was lost in those first five minutes, probably because his team “was so pumped up.” Thereafter, the Tigers played a lot taller and a lot older. A starting lineup of two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior matured before your eyes.
Of course North Carolina tends to play older than it really is, too. The Tar Heels were nobody’s pick to be here, after losing Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins from last year’s team and guard Steve Hale’s from this year’s, due to injury. Their starting lineup, after all, is not so much long in the tooth as in the frame. They start three sophomores.
So the two teams hammered away at each other, with Auburn actually outrebounding taller North Carolina, 33-32. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith explained that, while his team might have been bigger, the other Smith’s was quicker. “We used our size well,” he said. “They shot the shots we wanted them to take but they still got the rebound.”
As Auburn negated North Carolina’s size, packing it in under the basket, the Tar Heels went to Kenny Smith, a 6-3 sophomore guard. Smith says the elder Smith told him to start “knocking them down.” He made 9 of 12 shots, almost all from outside to neutralize Auburn’s work inside.
Still, it came down to an incredible stretch at the end of the game. Auburn finally got to within three points with six minutes left and more or less stayed in that area, poised for some lucky run, initiated by a missed free throw perhaps. As North Carolina would contemplate a slowdown, Auburn would immediately foul, forcing the Tar Heels to the line. But North Carolina would not default here, as the Tar Heels made 7 of 8 pressure free throws in the final minute.
And still Auburn was there. The Tigers trailed, 58-54, when Carey Holland scored on a wild in-bounds play, taking a pass under the basket and threading the ball through a thicket of giants. He even got a foul throw out of it. And even when he missed that, it looked like Auburn might be the Cinderella team it proclaimed itself.
Person, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds, got the rebound but fell backwards and was called for traveling. Sonny Smith suffered apoplexy at the call but later Person said, sure, he traveled. “It was a great call.” That was it. North Carolina got two more free throws and a breakaway basket for the final score.
Afterward Sonny Smith was again asked about his resignation, and he bristled at first, saying the issue took away from the effort of his kids. But then he softened and, to explain his wavering stance on the subject (nobody knows for sure whether he’s really leaving), he placed his hand on Person’s shoulder and said, “If you can look this guy in the eye and not have second thoughts, then you’re not human.” Sonny sniffled at the thought, realizing that, really, nothing is forever.
Villanova’s win not only meant its third final eight appearance in four years but meant a payback for an earlier loss to Maryland. All the same, the Wildcats did not distinguish the game of basketball in doing so.
The Wildcats (22-10) shot just 37%, with all but the talented Ed Pinckney looking somewhat amazed at the sight of a basketball. A layup was an adventure.
On the other hand, Maryland expressed an even greater unfamiliarity with shot-making. The Terps, who had beaten Villanova, 77-74, in their previous meeting, shot just 36%. Len Bias, the Athletic Coast Conference Player of the Year and the man who single-handedly destroyed Villanova with 30 points some months ago, made just 4 of 13 shots. Of course, he had an excuse. The 6-9 1/2 Pinckney was guarding him inside, denying him the ball and also the shot.
“I forced up some bad ones,” admitted Bias, held to single figures for the first time this season.
Pinckney was generous to Bias only after the game. “He just had an off night,” he said. “He never stopped trying to shoot the ball, never stopped making himself available.” Pinckney said that the 6-8 Bias was bound to have trouble shooting over him. “I have pretty long arms.”
The rest of the Terps (25-12) had no such excuse. Adrian Branch finished strong with 21 points but nobody else had more than four. Keith Gatlin shot an air ball with 10 seconds left in the game, the Terps trailing by three, pretty much summing up Maryland’s night.
As bad as Maryland played, they did come on strong at the end to threaten the Wildcats. Villanova had run off 11 straight points to open the second half, taking a 30-20 lead.
“We couldn’t buy a basket,” was Maryland Coach Lefty Dreisell’s technical analysis.
But Branch scored three baskets and the Terps hit on the strategy of fouling big Harold Pressley, a 62% free-throw shooter. It got them to 43-40 with 2:24 left. But Villanova’s four-corners offense just wouldn’t allow Maryland much more opportunity and, anyway, Pressley finally hit a free throw and that was that.
After the game, Dreisell lamented his team’s shooting until somebody handed him a statistic sheet. “I thought our shooting was bad,” he said, “theirs’ was just as bad.” Then the Left-hander said, “They ain’t a whole lot better ‘n us,” which should give everybody else cheer in this tournament.