March Madness: North Carolina's remarkable Final Four history
So which North Carolina Final Four story should we begin with first?
The time the Tar Heels had to go three overtimes twice, in 30 hours?
The night Dean Smith got himself thrown out of the game?
The game where the other coach wept?
Take away Kentucky, and North Carolina has been in more Final Fours than the rest of the entire SEC combined.
No wonder it was so surprising to see Roy Williams knick himself while slicing some of regional championship net the other day. As Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige noted, “He should be used to cutting nets.”
To commemorate No. 19, highlights from some of the other 18:
In the first postwar NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels came out of the Southern Conference to play Oklahoma A&M in the 1946 championship game. They were no match for Bob Kurland – back then, at 7-foot, one of the wonders of the world – who scored 23 points in a 43-40 victory.
The marathon men
Nobody – noooobody – ever won a national championship quite like the unbeaten 1957 Tar Heels. Fatigue? What’s fatigue? They went three overtimes to beat Michigan State in the semifinals, and three more overtimes the next night in a 54-53 epic over Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain.
The long, long, long road finally ended with two free throws in the final seconds against Kansas from Joe Quigg, who became a dentist and said 50 years later, “My dream had been to stand in the corner and take a jump shot with no time left. I had to settle for two free throws. Just as good.”
The dawn of Dean Smith
Something special was happening in Chapel Hill with three consecutive Final Four trips in the late 1960s. But the last weekend was certainly proving troublesome. Counting consolation games, the Tar Heels went 1-5 in those three Final Fours, losing four of the five by at least 20 points.
The day Smith might have outcoached himself
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The Tar Heels’ momentum went poof. After scoring 18 points in the first six minutes of the second half, they scored only four in the next 12 minutes, and Marquette rushed past to win 67-59, hitting 23 of 25 free throws. The lasting image from that day: Al McGuire, coaching his last game, weeping on the sidelines at the end.
Of Smith’s switch to the four corners, McGuire said afterward, “We were tired. Dean let us rest.”
The title game that almost wasn’t played
As North Carolina and Indiana looked ahead to the national title game in 1981, news came that President Reagan had been shot. In a surreal atmosphere in Philadelphia, the two teams prepared for a game that no one was sure would be played. Finally, with the president’s condition stabilized, they got the go-ahead. Led by Isiah Thomas, the Hoosiers won 63-50. Six Final Fours for Smith, six title-less rides home. It was becoming conspicuous.
Introducing Michael Jordan
You’re Dean Smith, your team is down one point to Georgetown in the final minute of the 1982 national championship game, and your players are awaiting instructions during a timeout. What to do?
You look at a certain freshman and say, “If it comes to you, knock it in.”
Now we know it did go to Jordan, and what happened next; a 16-foot jumper, leaving his hands in a memorable picture with 17 seconds showing on the huge Superdome clock. One last infamous case of misidentification was required – Georgetown’s Fred Brown throwing a pass to North Carolina’s James Worthy – for Smith to finally have his title.
“I don’t think I’m a better coach because we won the national championship,” he said afterward. “I’m not sure we were the best team tonight, we were the luckiest team tonight.”
The early exit
Everyone remembers what happened the second game of the 1991 national semifinals. Duke upset mighty UNLV. But the first game, in its way, was as remarkable, because who imagines Dean Smith getting thrown out of a Final Four?
It happened with his second technical foul with 35 seconds left. The game was already settled – he would lose 79-73 to Kansas and his former student and assistant; an impressive young coach named Roy Williams. Smith, who said he was merely trying to ask official Pete Pavia a question when he got the second technical, walked down to shake Williams’ hand and then exited up the ramp.
Williams, already so emotional at playing Smith that he had refused to look down at the Carolina bench the entire game, was mortified. “Toward the end, I just stood there watching everything that’s been significant in life,” he said. “In some ways, this was very bittersweet. I’m thrilled for our players, we deserve this. But to see Coach Smith leave that way, walk right by me, was disturbing. And for him to be the one I beat . . . “
Neither for the first nor last time, Williams could not finish a sentence.
No. 2 for Smith
Another championship game in New Orleans, another unforgettable snafu at the end to assure North Carolina a title. In 1982, it was Brown’s pass to Worthy. This time in 1993, it was Chris Webber calling a timeout Michigan didn’t have, with the Wolverines down two points and 11 seconds left. The Fab Five was doomed, and the Tar Heels won 77-71. “It’s an awful way to end the season,” Michigan coach Steve Fisher said.
Nothing seemed especially significant about North Carolina’s 66-58 defeat by Arizona in the 1997 national semifinals. Smith had lost Final Four games before. But he had said something interesting the day before, how he wanted to be “remembered that I coached basketball and I cared about the kids and they graduated, and they still like me when they’re 50.”
If it sounded like a goodbye, that’s because it was. Smith abruptly retired the next fall. The loss to Arizona and Lute Olson in Indianapolis was his final game.
Good ol’ Roy
Roy Williams went through the painful decision to leave Kansas because he wanted to bring glory to his alma mater, and finally end his own well-chronicled quest for a championship. And so it came in 2005, when the No. 2 Tar Heels beat No. 1 Illinois 75-70.
Lots of notable features to that night. It remains the only No. 1 vs. No. 2 championship game in the past four decades. The Tar Heels blew a 15-point lead. Illinois put up 40 3-pointers, making 12. North Carolina’s Sean May scored 26 points, the precise number his father Scott had put in for Indiana in the 1976 championship game.
“For me it means a lot, because I tried to live up to my father’s expectations, even though he hasn’t wanted me to,” Sean said that night.
And Williams? “I don’t feel like there’s a load off my shoulders, except I don’t have to answer that question. Does it feel as good or better than I thought? I never let myself think that far ahead to have any idea of what it was supposed to feel like.”
North Carolina was back in the Final Four in 2008, with a shiny 36-2 record, facing Kansas. Then, kaboom. The Jayhawks led 40-12 before the Tar Heels could regroup. North Carolina would eventually cut the margin to four, but it ended 84-66. Said Tar Heel Marcus Ginyard, “I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.”
North Carolina took no prisoners in 2009, marching to the championship with NCAA Tournament winning margins of 43, 14, 21, 12, 14 and 17. The Tar Heels led Michigan State 36-13 at one point in the championship game before going on to win, 89-72.
“The best team won,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “That’s an easy statement to make.”
It gave Williams two championships, matching Smith. He begged to differ.
“Roy Williams is not that good. But, boy, old Roy has got some big-time players, and that’s what it takes,” he said. “Roy Williams and Dean Smith don’t fit in the same sentence. I really believe that.”
What will he say next Monday if he has three? Part of playing or coaching at North Carolina is trying to figure out where you fit in among all the history.