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March 24, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - Even before they heard coach Roy Williams hollering, Brandan Wright and his North Carolina teammates could tell they were in big trouble.
Down by 16 points early in the second half, the top-seeded Tar Heels suddenly shifted into another gear. Fueled by a huge run, they pulled off their biggest rally of the season and beat Southern California 74-64 Friday night in the East Regional semifinals.
"It was a fantastic comeback to say the least," Williams said. "I have a great deal of confidence in my team. ... I knew we wouldn't give up."
"At halftime, I didn't throw any chairs," he said. "I did get a little heated by our intensity, about our effort and about our concentration, but I personally never lost faith in our kids," he said.
Despite off games by Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson, the Tar Heels (31-6) saved themselves with an 18-0 run, triggered when they pounded the offensive glass.
The victory set up a regional final Sunday for college basketball fans to savor: North Carolina vs. Georgetown, a rematch of the 1982 championship game that Michael Jordan won in the closing seconds.
The Tar Heels weren't motivated about duplicating history. No, something else stirred them.
"Probably coach Williams yelling," Lawson said.
Fifth-seeded USC (25-12) was putting on a dunking exhibition and led 49-33 with 17:42 left before it all fell apart. Trojans coach Tim Floyd threw his program onto the court after a call in the final minute, and was whistled for a technical foul.
By then, Wright and his teammates had already done plenty to frustrate Floyd's team. The Tar Heels won their seventh in a row and it was notable - previously, their biggest comeback was 12 points against Winthrop.
Wright scored two straight baskets on offensive rebounds to get the Tar Heels within 57-49, then the freshman was a key part of the big run that put them ahead for the first time since the opening minute.
"That's a very good team, especially when they are in the flow," Trojans freshman Taj Gibson said. "I just knew it was going to be a tough one to win."
North Carolina reached the round of eight for the second time under Williams, who won the 2005 title with the Tar Heels.
Earlier at the Meadowlands, coach John Thompson III and Georgetown beat Vanderbilt 66-65 on a last-second shot. Thompson was a boy sitting behind the Hoyas' bench and his dad - coach John Thompson - in that epic 1982 game.
"The 25 years, it seems to have gone by fast," the elder Thompson said at courtside when the night was over. "I've talked to Michael, kidding him that I made his career."
This time, another Carolina freshman was the key to victory. Wright finished with 21 points and nine rebounds. He somehow offset Hansbrough's 1-for-6 shooting for five points and Lawson's four points.
Lawson, a sparkplug all season, admitted he was worried.
"A little bit when they went up 16 and they were in their flow and we still weren't playing defense," Lawson said. "That's when we decided we were going to pick it up or we were going home."
Gibson had 16 points and 12 rebounds for the Trojans, but foul trouble took him out of the game for much of the second half. Nick Young and Lodrick Stewart each scored 15.
Gabe Pruitt, Young and Gibson took turns throwing down dunks in the first half as the Trojans more than matched North Carolina's up-tempo style.
Floyd said his team plays with "youthful exuberance" and it showed from the get-go. Pointing their index fingers, slapping hands after big plays and popping the "USC" on their jerseys, they looked like schoolyard kids having fun.
Floyd got into the act, too, shouting, "Go get it! Go get it!" during loose balls. Williams could barely watch on the other bench, putting his hands on his head and turning away after an airball.
The Trojans scored the last eight points of the first half for a 42-33 lead, then scored the first seven after the break, capped by Stewart's 3.
At that point, the Tar Heels trailed by 16 points and were in serious trouble. That is, until they started playing the kind of basketball that has consistently made them among the biggest winners in the sport.
The Trojans attacked inside early, taking it right at Hansbrough. The rugged 6-foot-9 sophomore ripped out his mouthpiece at one point, upset that the Trojans were getting the better of him.
In the second half, though, the Tar Heels had their way inside. They dominated the second-half as Southern California seemed powerless to stop the surge.
The Trojans were trying to reach the round of eight for the first time since 2001. Known primarily as a football school, a win over the Tar Heels would've clearly boosted their national profile.
"Winning and doing well in this tournament will do that, and that includes beating North Carolina," Southern California athletic director Mike Garrett, a former Heisman Trophy winner, said right before tip-off. "But it's more than just beating North Carolina."
It was not to be, despite such a strong start.
North Carolina led for a grand total of 17 seconds in the first half. That was at 1-0 on a foul shot by Marcus Ginyard, who started when Reyshawn Terry was slowed by strep throat.