SEATTLE -- The most storied comeback team in college basketball history couldn't come back last night. The Most Outstanding Player in the 1993 Final Four couldn't hit the biggest shot of his career.
This time, North Carolina is going home empty, having lost to defending national champion Arkansas, 75-68, in the second NCAA tournament semifinal game at the Kingdome. This time, Donald Williams is not going home the hero.
It appeared as if the Tar Heels, whose come-from-way-behind victories are the stuff of legend for their fans and heartaches for their opponents in the Atlantic Coast Conference, would add to their legacy with Williams as one of the heroes.
But with the Razorbacks barely hanging onto the remains of an 11-point lead with 3:34 left -- they led 71-68 after Clint McDaniel's two free throws stopped a 10-0 run by North Carolina that had cut it to one -- Williams misfired a three with 18.4 seconds to play.
"We had a great chance to win the game," said Tar Heels coach Dean Smith, who has seen quite a few of these comebacks during his legendary 34-year career. "We felt we would win after Jerry [Stackhouse] made the free throw [to cut it to 69-68]. But we didn't exactly do what we wanted to do in the last 18 seconds."
Despite his two overtime-forcing threes in this year's ACC tournament and being perfect on three three-point attempts last night, the Tar Heels wanted Stackhouse to drive, hoping to get an layup and possibly a foul. If the 6-foot-6 sophomore was covered, he was then to kick it back out to either Williams or Dante Calabria, who was the nation's leading three-point shooter during the regular season but has struggled of late.
Lacking his normal explosive first step after being kneed in the back early in the game, Stackhouse passed off to Williams. His three-point try from about 22 feet and straightaway hit the side of the rim. The Tar Heels wound up fouling McDaniel, who again made a pair to put the game away. The comeback -- and Williams' career -- was over.
"Jerry set the screen and I had the shot," said Williams, who had hit five of 12 threes last night and finished with a team-high 19 points, one more than Stackhouse. "It was one of my best spots on the floor. When I shot it, I felt it was good. But it just didn't go in."
Said Smith: "Donald has the green light. I'm just sad I'm never going to get to coach him again."
Whether Smith gets to coach Stackhouse and sophomore center Rasheed Wallace again is subject for debate. Both players have hinted during the regular season that they will be part of mass exodus expected if the NBA doesn't impose a rookie salary cap prior to the June draft.
Wallace, who finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots while seemingly limited by his sprained left ankle, was noncommittal last night.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," he said. "If I decide to go, I'm going to go. If I decide to stay I'm going to stay. It's not going to be a nail-biter."
Stackhouse, however, seemed to indicate that last night's result might be the impetus for him -- and possibly Wallace, if they decide to make the same decision -- to return to Chapel Hill next season.
"I don't know if we're going to do the same thing, but we're definitely going to talk about it," said Stackhouse, who along with Wallace, Maryland's Joe Smith and sophomore Tim Duncan of Wake Forest, will be considered among the top picks if they decide to come out. "But I'll tell you one thing. I'm not satisfied."