When the Southeast Regional was all said and done in Birmingham Sunday, the third-best team in the Big East had knocked off, in order, a team on its home court, the No. 2-ranked team in the land, one ACC power, and then, thanks to a couple of guys named Harold, the ACC's traditional superpower. Villanova blew away North Carolina 56-44 with a perfect 39-22, eight-steal, 76%-shooting second half.
A surprise? Well, that went both ways. "We've done well against height before, but we didn't realize Carolina's people were that big," said Villanova's 6'9½" center Ed Pinckney of the Tar Heels' skyscraper forward wall. Then again, North Carolina didn't realize that Villanova was that quick, because coach Dean Smith didn't think it was necessary for his team to study the Wildcats in action, either live or on tape.
Too bad. The Tar Heels would have come away impressed with Villanova's ability to win every which way. It beat Dayton with scrappy defense on the Flyers' home floor, top-seeded Michigan at slow tempo and, last Friday, Maryland at relative leisure, with Pinckney and 6'1" forward Harold Pressley limiting the Terps' 6'8" Len Bias to eight points in a 46-43 win. On Sunday the Wildcats relied on Pressley and the other Harold, Jensen, 6'6" Dwayne McClain and Pinckney's presence near the basket to disrupt Carolina's Mastodon Line.
Villanova coach Rollie Massimino's game plan had begun to form as he watched Carolina tilt the floor against Auburn in their semifinal, running out to a 23-8 lead behind 6'11½" Warren Martin, 6'11" Brad Daugherty, 6'10" Joe Wolf and 6'10" Dave Popson, on the way to a 62-56 win. "Dean doesn't let his team watch film of other teams?" said Rollie. "Well, we're more permissive." For his game plan against the Heels, Massimino settled on what Villanova plays best—a match-up zone, extended at the point by senior guard Gary McLain to keep the brilliant Kenny Smith from receiving return passes from the wings. "We had to be quick," said Massimino. "They were so big, we knew we'd only get one shot."
Sure enough, Carolina ran off early behind its skyline Sunday, and would have been up by eight at halftime had not McClain gotten a three-point tip-in at the buzzer after a Carolina travel. That give-up doomed the Tar Heels. "At halftime we discussed what had gotten us this far, what we had gone through," said Massimino. "The only thing we changed was the players' thinking." The coach decided, "on a whim," to bench 6'1" Dwight Wilbur and play a hunch, Jensen, the limber 6'5" sophomore.
"To play against Carolina to go to the Final Four was always part of my dream world," said Jensen, who played his dream game. He and Pressley combined for 20 second-half points and four steals against a Carolina perimeter passing game that was weak and tentative. Who says it hurts to play in the same league as Georgetown? "It does tend to make other teams look like they're in slow motion," said Pressley.
With 16:35 left, Pressley put Villanova ahead 27-26—a lead it would not relinquish—by picking off freshman Ranzino Smith's crosscourt lob and laying it in himself. Pressley finished with 15 points, including four second-half breakaways. "We couldn't get it inside," said Dean Smith, who had passed Adolph Rupp to become the second-winningest NCAA tournament coach after John Wooden with victory No. 31 against Auburn. "A combination of their defense and our offense. We misfired on things we knew we could do. We threw passes I couldn't believe we threw." Smith, who had said all along he was "tired of people saying this is a bad Carolina team," gave the choke sign to the refs for not calling a five-second violation on an out-of-bounds play with Carolina trailing 47-38. "We won 27 games," said Smith. "But Villanova was the better team today."
For Villanova seniors Pinckney, McClain and McLain, the trip to Lexington will be a just reward for having to play Big East straight men for four years to the likes of Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing.
"Don't get happy now Dwayne," said Pinckney to McClain.
"Don't get happy?" replied McClain. "Eddie, are you crazy?"
McClain and the Wildcats tried a few tricks North Carolina had never seen before.
Jensen was one of the Harolds who heralded 'Nova's arrival among the NCAA elite.