As soon as the final buzzer sounded, Serge Zwikker, not exactly known for his alacrity, bolted from the North Carolina bench and managed to scoop up the ball before a security officer.
"She wanted that ball pretty bad," he said. "She kept running after me and told me she'd give the ball to him later. I told her, "No. We'll give it to him now.' "
"That's one I'll accept," coach Dean Smith chimed in with a smile.
And guard it well.
It belongs to the ages.
The Tar Heels' resounding 73-56 win against Colorado on Saturday afternoon in the second round of the NCAA East Regional at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum moved Smith past the late Kentucky icon Adolph Rupp for the most coaching wins in major college basketball.
More important than career win No. 877 to this modest man, though, was No. 26 of this season for his Heels, the top seeds in the East, who head into the Sweet 16 for the 15th time in 17 years. They will meet surprising California next week in the Carrier Dome.
But after receiving congratulations from numerous alumni who came to Winston-Salem for the game _ including George Karl, Sam Perkins, Bobby Jones and Mitch Kupchak _ Smith finally talked about the historic moment that never was a goal.
"No. 1, I thank the University of North Carolina," he said. "To have coached there, a great academic institution where it's easy to recruit to a college town like that and have the support of the administration, even back when I was hung in effigy that one time the chancellor and everybody was still for me. The ones that mattered, anyway. You have to have that situation.
"And certainly, I'm so pleased with the players we've had over the years. And the assistant coaches we've had have been just remarkable. Starting with Ken Rosemond, and then Larry Brown and John Litz came in, and Bill Guthridge, Eddie Fogler, Roy Williams, Randy Wiel _ he's the head coach at Middle Tennessee State _ and Dave Hanners and Phil Ford now. I've named all the assistants. I can't name all the players. I could, but it would take me a while. They all share in this moment, if there is such a thing as this moment."
But No. 9 seed Colorado(22-10), in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1969, seemed intent on prolonging the wait for the moment.
"Being on the losing side doesn't mean anything to me," senior forward Martice Moore said. "We didn't come into this game to help Dean Smith get his record."
After falling behind 30-23 late in the first half, the Buffaloes closed with an 8-0 run to take a 31-30 lead. It was not an imposing lead, but other things seemed to be in their favor.
The Heels (26-6) were shooting poorly _ 37 percent after nine straight games above 50 percent _ and their prospects for dramatic improvement looked bleak with star guard Vince Carter out injured.
Carter, the former Daytona Beach Mainland High standout, severely pulled his groin on the right side moments into the game and sat on the bench with dripping ice bags under his leg.
He said he hopes to be ready Friday for Cal.
Not too worry. UNC turned to freshman guard Ed Cota, who at one time wasn't tickled with his limited role. Cota turned in the game of his life and even outplayed Colorado All-American Chauncey Billups.
"To me, when Vince was hurt, it did something to (Cota) mentally," Smith said.
Cota hit a three-pointer, just his fifth of the season, with 15:47 left to give Carolina a 41-37 lead and ignite a 30-8 run that lasted eight minutes.
"I knew I had to come on and score some baskets," said Cota, who finished with a career-high 16 points _ on 6 of 7 shooting, including 2-of-2 from beyond the three-point arc _ 5 assists and 6 rebounds.
"He's a terrific point guard," Colorado coach Ricardo Patton said. "He's quick, and he's difficult to pressure the way we like to because he'll blow right by you."
The Heels blew by, all right, and all that was left was running out the clock. In the waning seconds, the largely partisan Carolina crowd began a reverberating chant:
"Dean. Dean. Dean."
The cheerleaders pulled on specially printed T-shirts commemorating the win and, in the stands behind the UNC bench, Karl smiled, and Perkins shook a powder blue-and-white pompom.
"I'm proud that we did it this year," Zwikker said. "Hopefully we can put this behind us now and concentrate on the next game."
CALIFORNIA 75, VILLANOVA 68: The Golden Bears' physical defense shut out freshman star Tim Thomas in the second half, and Cal reached the the Sweet 16 for just the second time since 1960.
"We talked at halftime about our defense," coach Ben Braun said. "It's been our motto. It's been our strong suit all year."
Villanova (24-10) took a 36-34 halftime thanks in part to the shooting of Thomas. He was 5-of-7 for 11 points. As a team, the Wildcats shot nearly 54 percent in the half. But in the second half Thomas was 0-for-5, and the Wildcats' percentage plummeted to 34.
Cal forward Tony Gonzalez, an All-America tight end projected as a first-round NFL draft pick, not only stymied Thomas, he scored a season-high 23 points. That included nine in an 11-4 run that gave Cal (23-8) a 55-44 lead midway through the second half.
"It's always challenging to play one of the top players in the country, one who has a great future in the NBA," Gonzalez said. "To come out and have a performance like that is a great feeling."
The Golden Bears are 4-1 since Ed Gray, a second-team All-American who averages 28.4 points, broke his foot Feb.
"People expected us to panic and get desperate, but we all know each other and we know what each are capable of doing and we each know of our roles," forward Alfred Grigsby said. "Everybody on this team can play defense _ and that is the ultimate focus right there."