EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It came down to one shot yesterday and, though it was no secret who'd take it, Temple's Mark Macon somehow managed to get open for a potential game-tying shot that held the Final Four hopes of his team -- and that of North Carolina's.
"I said 'good' when I released it. I say good all the time," Macon said of the 25-foot attempt, with four seconds left. "That's my thinking, basically, that all my shots are going in."
This one didn't, bouncing off the front rim just before time expired to enable top-seeded North Carolina to win, 75-72, before 19,601 at the Meadowlands Arena.
North Carolina will be making its first trip to the Final Four since 1982, when it won the national championship. North Carolina (29-6) will face Kansas -- coached by former Tar Heels assistant Roy Williams -- in Saturday's semifinals.
"I'm very pleased for our seniors because they hav demonstrated great leadership all year," said Smith, who became the first coach to take a team to the Final Four in four different decades. "That's about as well as we can play. We can shoot better, but you have to give them credit for blocking a lot of our shots."
And Smith, and his players, also had to give credit to Macon, who scored 31 points and was named the region's outstanding player. The 6-foot-5 senior guard scored 15 points in the first 8 minutes, 42 seconds and did his part to shake the criticism from the 1988 regional final when he hit six of 29 shots in a loss to Duke.
"[Macon] was hitting everything," said North Carolina forward Rick Fox, who scored 19 and was named to the all-tournament team. "I've never been on the court with somebody, other than Rodney Monroe, who had so much confidence in his shot. He showed why he's one of the best guards in the country."
At times North Carolina's King Rice has been one of the country's most criticized guards, but yesterday he came through with another steady performance. Going against a tough matchup zone, Rice committed one turnover, had seven assists and scored 12 -- the last four on pressure free throws in the last 22.9 seconds that helped pull out the win.
Temple's Mik Kilgore had hit a three-pointer with 1:32 left that helped his team overcome an 11-point deficit to pull to within 71-69, but Rice was fouled while pulling up for a jumper and made two free throws to make it 73-69 with 22.9 seconds left.
Macon followed with a three-pointer with 9.6 seconds left to make it 73-72, but Rice was fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass and made two more free throws for a 75-72 lead.
"I just wanted the ball in that situation," Rice said. "I knew that if I was fouled with the ball, I would make them."
Macon eluded Fox and Hubert Davis to get off the three-point attempt, and the shot was on line -- just inches short.
"I was just praying that it wouldn't go," Fox said. "As soon as he passed the hash mark, he shot it. I just said to myself, 'Man, that's a long shot.' "
As expected, it was a well-played defensive game, with the exception of a stretch at the start when Temple turned the ball over three times and missed four shots to fall behind, 10-0. But Macon scored 15 of his team's first 16, including seven in a 10-0 run that gave Temple an 18-14 lead midway through the half.
The Owls fell behind, 49-38, just over five minutes into the second half and were never able to get a lead. Each Temple threat was answered by a clutch shot by a North Carolina player -- including a three-pointer by Davis and a stick-back and short jumper by George Lynch in the final four minutes.
"Those three were very, very tough shots down the stretch," Temple coach John Chaney said. "They got into the paint and missed a couple, but they got the rebounds and put them back in."
The loss was Chaney's second in a regional final. He was happy with the team that, late in the season, he doubted would get into the tournament, especially after it lost in the Atlantic 10 semifinals.
"To get as far as we did required a special feeling for each other -- to pitch in and overcome odds," Chaney said.
The often-emotional Chaney later broke down as he spoke about coaching Macon for the final time.
"Everyone wants to get to the Final Four," Chaney said. "It's a dream every coach has, but when you start out, you're just dreaming. I wanted so much to give these kids the opportunity to get there. And especially, to a very special young man, like Mark."
Macon, who cried in the locker room after that 1988 game at the Meadowlands, left with his head high.
"They're just a great team," Macon said of the Tar Heels. "They have a lot of key weapons in a lot of key places. When one of those guys goes out, another one with a gun and a bullet comes in."
North Carolina's depth helped get it to Indianapolis, which will be a homecoming of sorts for Fox and freshman center Eric Montross. Fox, a native of the Bahamas, played high school ball in Warsaw, Ind. Montross was a high school All-America in Indianapolis.
"[Indiana] is where my basketball originated, and it means a lot to me to play in the Final Four there," Fox said. "I've never been to a Final Four, and it's something that we've always talked about. It's a great feeling."
Dean Smith in the Final Four
Semifinals: lost to Dayton, 76-62
Third place: lost to Houston, 84-62
Semifinals: beat Ohio State, 80-66
Championship: lost to UCLA, 78-55
Semifinals: lost to Purdue, 92-65
Third place: lost to Drake, 104-84
Semifinals: lost to Florida State, 79-75
Third place: beat Louisville, 105-91
Semifinals: beat UNLV, 84-83
Championship: lost to Marquette, 67-59
Semifinals: beat Virginia, 78-65
Championship: lost to Indiana, 63-50
Semifinals: beat Houston, 68-63
Championship: beat Georgetown, 63-62