But the Tar Heels' surprisingly one-sided, 84-69 basketball victory over Villanova yesterday in the NCAA East Regional at the Carrier Dome brought with it another shot of confidence to an already driven team, and an invitation to next weekend's shindig in East Rutherford, N.J.
By playing their way into a record 11th straight Sweet 16 appearance, the Tar Heels passed several mini-tests. While most of the basketball world already has penciled North Carolina into the Final Four, the Tar Heels never let their attention waver under the big white dome.
They attacked a dangerous team and quickly laid down the ground rules with their defense. Then, to the comfort and ultimate delight of Smith, the Tar Heels fought off a late Villanova run after getting a taste of NCAA pressure, something that had been virtually absent in North Carolina's first three halves of tournament play.
It was a solid victory for a North Carolina team that refuses to look ahead but won't deny its burning desire to get to the Final Four for the first time since 1982.
"We did a great job. We handled the task we had with this little tournament. Now we've got to do the same thing next week," said forward Rick Fox, who anchored a North Carolina defense that forced 22 turnovers, made 13 steals and held Villanova to 41-percent field-goal shooting.
It had the look of a game that would test the Tar Heels' patience, but Villanova didn't squeeze the clock. Instead, North Carolina was able to force the tempo with its defense, and the Wildcats fell into the Tar Heels' desired pace.
Villanova's three-point shooting helped the Wildcats build an early five-point lead, but the North Carolina defense seemed to gather momentum as the game moved along.
With George Lynch on his way to a 19-point, 10-rebound afternoon on the inside and Hubert Davis hitting three of four three-pointers to balance the North Carolina offense, the Tar Heels were able to pull away to a 44-32 halftime lead.
The North Carolina lead reached 18 before Villanova made its expected run keyed by the outside shooting of Lloyd Mumford and Greg Woodard. An 8-0 spurt turned the crowd toward the Wildcats and forced Smith to call a timeout.
"He [Smith] told us this was a good gut test," Fox said.
"He said he was happy to see them come back and get the crowd into it," he said. "We needed that in this tournament."