Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Final Four - Finally [J. Mark English]

At last, a field of 64 teams has been narrowed down to just four teams. Three of my four teams that I had going originally in my brackets have made it to the big dance. Butler was the only team I picked wrong, and in their stead Florida will return to a the semi-finals for a rematch of last years finals, facing off against UCLA.

Florida's earlier game against Oregon was a "close" game, but it didn't feel close, nor did it generate much excitement. At least this is the perspective of a non-partisan spectator. The crowd was lackluster, and given the size of the dome in St. Louis, it felt like a placid atmosphere. Oregon kept making three's in the final minute, which stymied Florida's attempt to pull away. But by the end Florida would hold on to win, and advance.

The Georgetown / UNC game was a classic. Here is a recap from the Georgetown website:

Twenty-five years later, Georgetown got even for a coach named Thompson and a player named Ewing.

In an NCAA tournament full of tremendous rallies, it was the Hoyas' turn - against North Carolina, of all teams.

Georgetown overcame an 11-point deficit in the second half, then ripped off 14 straight points in overtime to stun the top-seeded Tar Heels 96-84 in the East Regional final Sunday for their first trip to the Final Four since 1985, when the coach was John Thompson Jr. and the star was Patrick Ewing.

The Hoyas (30-6) did it this time with coach John Thompson III calling the backdoor plays he learned at Princeton and Patrick Ewing Jr. making key contributions.

"You want the best for your kids. I'm proud of both John and my son," Ewing Sr. said. "I'm happy, I'm very proud. I think Georgetown is back."

They were helped by an amazing collapse from Carolina (31-7), which made only one of 23 field goal attempts, including its first 12 in overtime, over a 15-minute span.

After Georgetown's Jonathan Wallace hit a 3 that tied it at 81 with 31 seconds left in regulation, the Tar Heels had a chance to win it, but freshman Wayne Ellington missed an open jumper from the wing right before the buzzer and Ewing grabbed the rebound, prompting his pop to high-five everyone near him in the stands.

There would be no game-winning shot for the Tar Heels a la 1982, when freshman Michael Jordan's 17-foot jumper with 17 seconds left lifted Carolina over Georgetown 63-62 for the national championship.

The Hoyas waited a long time to avenge that defeat. When they did, it made the Thompsons the first father-son duo to coach a team to the Final Four, much less at the same school, and they enjoyed a huge embrace at courtside.

Comment -

What made this game so great was the "David vs. Goliath" motif. Early on North Carolina was running the floor, and Georgetown looked like they didn't have a prayer. UNC could sub at will, and who ever came in could run with the same intensity as the person he replaced. Georgetown got into foul trouble early on, and looked tired from the get go.

But something funny happened on the way to Roy Williams and the Tar Heels return to the Final Four. Georgetown adjusted to a zone defense, and found that they could slow down the run and gun UNC offense. By the second half, the Hoyas had taken over the tempo of the game. They forced UNC into a half court game, which the Hoyas were able to dominate. They forced UNC to grind out every basket. Georgetown took advantage of every opportunity, dominated the boards, and stifled UNC's offense.

By the time Georgetown came from behind to force overtime, UNC had lost any control they had had early on. The Hoyas blew them out in overtime, and UNC was left wondering what happened.

What a game. We can only hope that the Final Four offers up the same excitement that this game did.

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