And it wasn't Kentucky's vaunted bench that made the difference, either, even with Carolina seemingly beset by injury and foul trouble.
Instead, it was the Wildcats' blind spot -- their inability to hit open jump shots -- that signaled the end of their run through the NCAA tournament.
Supposedly outmanned on the court, and most certainly outnumbered in the stands, North Carolina sprung a 74-61 upset of Kentucky at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center to gain a berth in the Final Four.
Jerry Stackhouse led the way with 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists -- a performance that helped earn him the Most Outstanding Player award in the Southeast Regional. Donald Williams, the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four two years ago when Carolina claimed its third national title, hit for 18 from outside. And Rasheed Wallace, despite foul difficulties and a quick elbow that nearly precipitated a brawl, contributed 12 points.
But the truly remarkable aspect of the upset was Kentucky's woeful shooting performance. The Wildcats made just 21 of 75 shots -- a paltry 28 percent -- and were even worse from three-point range, where they made just seven of 36. Tony Delk epitomized the problem, scoring 19 points, but hitting only seven of 21 shots.
For three days here, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino talked of how the Wildcats no longer relied on shooting threes, once their trademark. But yesterday they retreated to that strategy, and it cost them dearly.
It also dumbfounded their coach.
"We have worked on characteristics of being a team the whole year," Pitino said. "I was stunned that individuals showed up instead tonight. I'm dumbfounded with what we did. . . . I don't understand it.
"I thought we had a great team coming in, but we're going home as individuals."
It was the intent of Carolina (28-4) to let Kentucky (28-4) fire away from outside, and the resulting misses helped the Tar Heels create a tempo to their liking.
"We did want jump shots [from Kentucky], not drives to the basket," said coach Dean Smith, who takes the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the 10th time in his 34 seasons.
In a virtual caldron that bubbled with its record crowd of 17,721, the game started off in Kentucky fashion. The Wildcats jumped out to leads of 8-2 and 13-5, but an altercation between Wallace and Kentucky's Andre Riddick four minutes in seemed to have an effect.
Wallace hit Riddick on the cheek with his left elbow, and Riddick immediately grabbed him by the throat. Riddick had to be restrained in the ensuing tumult that took five minutes to sort out.
Officials charged Riddick with a foul and teammate Walter McCarty with a technical, when it appeared to be the other way around. Wallace drew a technical as well, apparently for something he said.
"It was a hard foul," Wallace said. "There was a whole lot of tension, but it wasn't anything personal."
Both Riddick and Wallace went to the bench to sit for a while. Wallace was back two minutes later, while Riddick stayed out nine.
Down 13-5 and in the huddle with a TV timeout, Smith told the Tar Heels how uncharacteristic their play was.
"I think we were overly fired up," he said. "That first timeout, I said that isn't us out there."
An 8-0 Carolina run followed. It ended with Wallace's third personal foul. But by that time, the Tar Heels had set the tone. When Jeff McInnis scored on a drive with 1:25 left in the half, Carolina had a 34-31 lead. The Tar Heels never trailed in the second half, building an early lead of nine points, then watching Kentucky get within four.
As was the case in the 74-64 semifinal victory over Georgetown, Stackhouse was instrumental by slashing to the basket and then feeding Wallace for easy buckets. On successive possessions, with less than five minutes to play, the All-America forward did just that. When Wallace punctuated the second with a dunk, it was 62-54 and Kentucky was reeling.
Pitino called timeout five seconds later, but the Wildcats never got closer than six points.
"We have been a poised team in the last five minutes of games," Smith said. "I think we were today."
In the face of 20 turnovers against the Kentucky press, poise was relative. Even though the Heels buckled under the pressure, they never folded.
"That's the first time the press really hurt us this late in the season," Smith said. "That's my fault."
Stackhouse said Carolina did as much damage to the press as it did to the Heels, though.
"They got us making turnovers, but we got some easy baskets going through our press offense," he said.
Pitino felt the pain the most, it seemed.
"Tonight we didn't deserve victory," he said. "We'll give credit to our opponent, take our lumps and look to next year."