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COLLEGE BASKETBALL NCAA MEN’S FINAL FOUR : Teammates Won’t Let Reese Forget It : North Carolina: Lingering image of the Tar Heels’ victory over Cincinnati is his missed dunk.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although Brian Reese is not about to admit it, his missed dunk at the end of regulation in Sunday’s NCAA East Regional final against Cincinnati will not soon be forgotten in these parts.

Sure, the North Carolina Tar Heels advanced to this weekend’s Final Four in New Orleans with a 75-68 overtime victory, but some still were wondering Tuesday how a talented 6-foot-6 swingman could miss an uncontested dunk.

“It’s over and done with,” Reese said on a warm and windy spring day. “Nothing more can be said about it.”

Reese, a talkative junior from the Bronx, N.Y., wishes it were so simple.

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Guard Derrick Phelps is not about to let it be. Phelps said Tuesday the players are enjoying some verbal sparring.

“Brian Reese missing a dunk is shocking to me,” Phelps said.

This locker-room banter keeps the Tar Heels loose as they prepare for Saturday’s semifinal game against Kansas. Even if North Carolina had lost to Cincinnati, Phelps said teammates would joke about the mishap.

“That’s part of life,” he said.

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The ignominious moment came when North Carolina inbounded the ball with eight-tenths of a second remaining in regulation and the score tied. Reese caught the inbounded ball about five feet to the left of the basket. He was alone. As teammates encouraged him to shoot, Reese lunged toward the basket and tried to dunk, but the ball went off the back of the rim.

Officials said it would have counted had it gone in, but that probably would have elicited protests from Cincinnati coaches. It seemed more time had elapsed than 0.8 seconds before Reese shot.

Although the miscue came at an inopportune time before a national television audience, Reese has had a gratifying season.

North Carolina might not be in position to win its second NCAA title except for his late-season exploits. Reese, 21, scored 56 points in three Atlantic Coast Conference tournament games as the Tar Heels (32-4) finished second to Georgia Tech. In the last 13 games, he has averaged 14.3 points and five rebounds.

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After starting the season slowly because of injuries, Reese is peaking. Best of all, he is feeling good.

Already this season Reese has suffered a pulled back muscle, sprained ankle, pulled hamstring and injured hand. It was a disappointing start considering how hard he worked last summer to improve his stamina. Last season, he was unable to play long stretches without tiring and was thought to have asthma.

But he questioned it.

“I never had asthma before in my whole life,” he said in November. “Then I come down here and all of a sudden, people say I have asthma.”

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North Carolina fans are more apt to marvel over Reese’s development in the past three seasons than dwell on his medical history. Reese came to Chapel Hill as a highly touted scorer from St. Nicholas of Tolentine High.

As happens to so many other high school All-Americans who enter Coach Dean Smith’s system, Reese has become a complete player. Smith has been criticized for stifling young talent such as Michael Jordan 10 years ago. Reese said the rigid program is beneficial for those interested more in NBA contracts than NCAA scoring titles.

Reese was determined to attend North Carolina after watching the 1982 NCAA championship game in which the Tar Heels won on a jumper by Jordan with 15 seconds to play. He might not have watched the game--in which Smith won his only NCAA title--except that a family friend played for North Carolina.

North Carolina’s disciplined style had a profound effect on him.

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“Growing up in New York, it’s more one-on-one, so you can see those moves I make,” he said.

Reese wanted to grow as a player, yet he was unprepared for the rigors of college basketball.

“It was a big change for me,” he said of playing for Smith. “I mean, I’m from New York, I never ran a day in my life. Run the track? Get in shape? I ride on buses, trains, cabs everywhere. Running? I didn’t even know what that was.”

Reese learned quickly.

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The summer before his freshman year, he trained with Jordan once a week and told everyone he would be ready for North Carolina basketball. When practice began in the late fall, he suffered through conditioning drills. It was another moment he would prefer to forget.

Surviving the adjustment, Reese has emerged as the embodiment of Smith’s selfless basketball style.

He now reflects on his prep days with some embarrassment. Thinking only about scoring, Reese said he would ask to be benched if shooting poorly. Now, when his shot is off, Reese strives to perfect other components of his game.

“I know I can help this team in different ways, and I think that is what’s good about this team,” he said.

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As long as he also perfects his dunking, the Tar Heels will be satisfied.


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