MEMPHIS, Tenn. – To put North Carolina’s explosive offense into perspective, consider that Gonzaga was shooting 85.7 percent – 85.7 percent – from the field roughly 7 minutes into the first half and still trailed by three points.
When the fourth-seeded Bulldogs threatened to make a game of it in second half, the Tar Heels struck for two 3-pointers and two three-point plays in the span of 75 seconds.
Top-seeded North Carolina put on an offensive clinic, running up 53 points in the first half and leading by as many as 28 before settling for a 98-77 victory over the Bulldogs in the South Regional semifinals in front of 17,103 Friday at the FedExForum.
“They just did everything right,” GU senior center Josh Heytvelt said of UNC’s offense. “It was like an individual workout or an open gym where guys are just loose.”
“I’ve said all along if all 16 of us (in the Sweet 16) play at the top of our game, North Carolina wins the national championship,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “When they’re playing at their highest end, they’re better than the rest of us.”
“It seemed like they were playing with six guys,” sophomore forward Austin Daye said.
Gonzaga finished with a 28-6 record, one shy of the school record for single-season wins. The Bulldogs advanced to their fifth Sweet 16 in the last 11 seasons, but fell one win short of matching the 1999 team’s march to the Elite 8.
North Carolina (31-4) will meet second-seeded Oklahoma, which eliminated No. 3 Syracuse 84-71, in the Regional finals Sunday.
UNC junior point guard Ty Lawson, slowed in recent weeks by a toe injury, had a healthy stat line. He had 17 points in the first half on 6-of-7 shooting, including 3 of 4 3-pointers. He distributed more in the second half, picking up seven of his nine assists. He finished with 19 points in 27 minutes.
“He shot the ball well, made his open 3-pointers and he got his guys the ball in the right spots,” Gonzaga senior guard Jeremy Pargo said. “It wasn’t just him blowing past us getting layup after layup.”
Lawson had plenty of help from his teammates. Danny Green hit three 3s and totaled 13 points, seven assists and four steals. Wayne Ellington had 19 points, seven boards and four assists. Tyler Hansbrough scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. UNC’s talented bench chipped in 18 points.
“When Danny is hitting from the perimeter, I think we’ve got all our parts and we’re going,” Ellington said. “They have to respect me and Danny from the perimeter so we have a lot easier looks from the inside.”
About the only place the Tar Heels struggled was at the free-throw line. They heated up in the second half to finish at 55.6 percent.
Green’s 3 gave UNC an early 12-6 edge. By the 15-minute mark, the Tar Heels had 10 points off turnovers and a 19-12 advantage. Ellington’s three-point play hiked UNC’s lead to 29-18 and his free throw with 3:53 left made it a 17-point margin.
Steven Gray brought Gonzaga back with baskets on three straight possessions. Lawson’s two free throws restored North Carolina’s lead to 51-39, but Daye’s 3-pointer narrowed the deficit to 51-42. Hansbrough’s power move resulted in an interior bucket and a 53-42 lead at half.
North Carolina opened the second half with a 13-3 spurt to build a 66-45 lead. Gonzaga clawed back as Pargo, who had a team-high 16 points, had back-to-back baskets and later converted a turnover into a layup as GU closed within 68-57 with 12:32 remaining.
The Tar Heels answered as reserve guard Bobby Frasor, a 26 percent shooter from beyond the arc, drained two straight 3s, Ellington finished on the break while getting fouled and Hansbrough capped the run with a layup while being fouled by Heytvelt.
“Bobby’s 3s were kind of the back-breaker,” Pargo said.
Gonzaga didn’t have its best offensive night, but the Bulldogs still shot 46.6 percent from the field and nearly reached their season average of 79 points. Heytvelt had 14 points, Micah Downs 12 and Daye 10. Matt Bouldin was limited to seven points – seven less than his season average – on 3-of-10 shooting.
But the Zags had no defensive answers for the Tar Heels, who made 53 percent of their shots, 58 percent of their 3s.
“That’s probably the best basketball any team has played all year,” Heytvelt said. “We’re not a bad defensive team. They penetrated, kicked it out and hit basically every shot. They’d come in (the lane) and we’d foul the heck out of them and the ball would still go in the hoop.”
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