UNC — national runner-up last year — has the sport’s top rebounding and rebounding margin (13.1). USC gives up the second-fewest points. Both Heels and Gamecocks cheerleader uniforms say “Carolina” across them. Will the better/real Carolina step up?
No fooling — both resume title quests in semifinals Saturday on April Fool’s Day. The Final Four is in Phoenix. First, underdog seventh-seed USC and strong Sindarius Thornwell tangle with a top seed in Gonzaga. The Zags have the nation’s stingiest defense, and adept inside-out attack blend. Tip-off is slated for 6:09 p.m.
Then at 8:49 p.m. UNC led by athletic Justin Jackson and its own twin towers and interior defense plays Oregon’s athletic sharpshooters and projected NBA lottery picks Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey. The two winners meet on Monday night, April 3, starting at 9 p.m.
North Carolina is the sole NCAA juggernaut in the Final Four. UNC has gone this far 20 times since 1946, and one-third of the seasons (six of 18) in this millennium. Coach Roy Williams has led Kansas (four times) then UNC to a total of nine Final Fours. That ranks fourth best all-time.
The seasoned Heels are on a “redemption” mission, after losing the title to eighth-seeded Villanova on a last-second shot a year ago.
Both USC and its semifinal foe Gonzaga, a number one seed after years as popular underdogs, are in their first Final Fours. USC has won NIT titles in 2005 and ’06, but before this month last won an NCAA tourney game in 1973 when led by Alex English and Kevin Joyce. Frank McGuire coached USC then, and UNC in the Fifties when winning the ’57 title 54-53 over big Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas. McGuire is the main link between the two Carolinas.
Superstar Thornwell is a stocky 6-5, 211-pound senior wing. He is oft-unstoppable up front, a la Charles Barkley. The Lancaster, S.C. native and Oak Hill (Va.) Academy product is averaging 25.8 ppg. in the tourney, and 21.6 for the season. He scored 26 points versus Florida. He averages two steals, and seven rebounds. Guard P.J. Dozier (13.8 ppg.) added 17 against the Gators. Forwards Chris Silva (6-9, 223 so.) had 13 and nine boards, and Maik Kotsar ( 6-10, 245 fr.) 12 to double his average. Duane Notice and Silva average 10 points.
Estonian native Kotsar has an Iron Curtain-ish tank battle, with Pole Przemek Karnowski (7-1, 300 sr.) of Gonzaga. The Zags’ latest (mostly foreign) big men are Karnowski (12.2 ppg.), Ryan Edwards (7-1, 295 jr.), Zach Collins (7-0, 230 fr.), Dane Jacob Larsen (6-11, 227 fr.), Frenchman Killian Tillie (6-10, 200 fr.), Jonathan Williams (6-9, 228 jr.), and Rui Hachimura (6-8, 225 fr.) from Japan.
USC as usual lacks height, but has bulk. One-third (six of 18 players) weighing at least 223, and seven of the 12 others over 200 pounds.
Gonzaga is four percent better than USC in three-point shooting, tying Oregon at 38 percent and two better than UNC. The Zags’ leading scorer is Nigel Williams-Goss (16.7 ppg.). Williams averaged 16 points and seven boards last weekend. The Zags rolled over 11th seed Xavier by 24, on Saturday. They trail UNC slightly, in odds to win it all. They face woes versus athletic teams.
Gamecock head coach Frank Martin’s defense again caused more than 15 turnovers, triggering many fast break baskets. Physical USC wears foes and in second halves outscored Marquette (by 21, to win by 20), Duke (by 14), Baylor (five) then Florida by 14 points in the tourney. Thornwell told CBS the team was confident it could come back again, after trailing by seven at halftime to ACC tourney champ Duke and to Florida in an earlier game. He echoes the “why not us?” team motto.
Beating surging Duke was huge. USC’s 65 second-half points were its most it ever scored in a half, and the most Duke ever gave up in a half. USC, already battle-tested in the rugged SEC, beat three of the top four seeds in its bracket. The grudge match with Florida might be tabbed the Steve Spurrier Bowl, as he coached both schools in football. The Gators previously KOed Wisconsin, on a buzzer-beater. Wisconsin had taken out reigning champ Villanova.
Three SEC teams were among the four playing Sunday, within the Elite Eight. Now, USC is the SEC’s sole hope. That spurs USC alumni in this area. Those in Hendersonville outwardly rabid about Gamecock sports include County Commission Chr. Mike Edney (like Roche at attorney), Pardee Hospital CEO Jay Kirby, and Tiffany Ervin who is active with Rotary and ran the Miss Hendersonville pageant. Tar Heel alums and fans abound.
Sports pubs to see the games in Downtown Asheville include the Bier Garden and Wild Wings Cafe. Both have over two dozen large-screen TVs. Other Buncombe hot spots for hoops include Green Man and Catawba breweries, Twisted Laurel and Hickory Tavern. Downtown Hendersonville features The Dugout and Hannah Flanagan’s.
The most dramatic win this past weekend was the Heels 75-73 over UK, as reserve Luke Maye drilled a long jumper with .3 of a second left. Coach Williams did not use a timeout, to set his play but also the Wildcat defense. He instead let the winning play evolve. Theo Pinson drove across the lane, then passed out to wide-open Maye. Maye, former walk-on averaging 5.5 points, exploded for a career-best 17 points.
This clash of blue-blood programs determined the Final Four’s sole blue-clad team. The two schools have combined for 245 NCAA tourney game wins, 36 Final Fours, and 13 national tournament titles. UNC won five, from 1957 to 2009. Kentucky won eight (second behind UCLA’s 11) in 1948-2012. The Wildcats pace all, by winning more than three-fourths of games.
Kentucky’s fabled freshman backcourt of Malik Monk (12 pts.) and De-Aaron Fox (13, after scoring 39 a game earlier) was held in check — until Monk sank two treys in the final, frenzied minute. This was deja vu of his long shot that beat UNC 103-100 a week before Christmas. That was UNC’s first-ever non-OT loss when scoring 100 or more points.
ACC Player of the Year Jackson of UNC scored 19 points to near his average (18.2 ppg.). He also had four assists and five rebounds. He is the first Heel to ever sink at least 100 three-pointers. Jackson exploded for 34 points versus UK on Dec. 17. Athletic, lanky juniors Jackson (6-8, 210) and Pinson (6-6, 211) balance inside force.
Much hinges on senior big men Kennedy Meeks (6-10, 260) and Isaiah Hicks (6-9, 242). Interior defense as usual was superb Sunday, with blocks and steals. Meeks (9.3 rpg.) has averaged a whopping 13 rebounds in the latest three wins. He is averaging 17 points in the tourney. That exceeds his season-long mark of 12 points, an average Hicks shares. Four Heels weigh 235 or more, including Maye (6-8, 235 so.). As Coach Williams says, “we’re doggone tough.”
The Heels average 85 points. Pivotal is how second-best scorer Joel Berry II (14.6 ppg.), is coming on after an ankle injury hobbled him. The 6-0 junior guard drove in to sink a floater, then stole the ball to help finish that crucial 12-0 run. UNC went from five down to ahead by seven, at 71-64. The Heels led by five at the break. They also used a 12-0 run, to beat pesky Arkansas in round two. That was between wins over Texas Southern and Butler.
Skill-wise, Oregon Ducks with an athletic trio loom as UNC’s chief challenger. The Ducks edged Michigan by a point. Then they stunned pre-tourney favorite Kansas and guard Frank Mason III Saturday — pulling away to win by 14 in Kansas City, Mo. near the KU campus.
Oregon’s Jordan Bell is in the “zone,” on both ends. The 6-9, 225 junior forward snared seven offensive rebounds Saturday and blocked eight shots, and averages 8.6 rebounds. Tyler Dorsey (6-4 soph.) is scorching the tourney field for 24.5 ppg., and notched 27 against Kansas. The guard from L.A. is nailing two of every three three-point shots. OU’s top scorer is 6-7 junior guard Dillon Brooks (16.3 ppg.) of Ontario. Feisty senior Dylan Ennis (10.7) hustles.
Oregon uniforms are shiny, gaudy yellow. Is this an omen the upstarts end up lemons? Oregon made the first Final Four, in 1939 when there were eight teams, but none until now. In ’39 the Ducks dreamed of seeing the Wizard of Oz on the victory stand. Instead, they were promptly Gone with the Wind. Heel fans eye a similar vanquishing of these webbed wonders, then the national crown.