NC State coach Jim Valvano’s plan was to handcuff Thurl Bailey and Cozell McQueen to Ralph Samson. But plans often change -- quickly.
Valvano was no stranger to this concept; he even came up with the “diamond and two” idea on the fly, and it was working. With 48 seconds remaining and a 78-75 Wolfpack lead, all plans were scrapped. All plans were forgotten. And something nobody expected to happen, happened in front of nearly 18,000 people at the Omni in Atlanta.
Sampson found himself alone in the key with Bailey, accompanied only by his inside position. His outstretched arm from his 7-foot-4 frame reached nearly as high as the rim.
Virginia noticed Sampson “open” down low and toss a lob into the lower paint. Sampson pulled it down and squared up for an easy dunk. As far as he was concerned, there was nobody between him and the basket.
Sampson went up, but the ball stayed back down on earth. It was stripped. Sampson lost the ball.
Who did that? Sampson shrugged off Bailey when he caught the lob. McQueen wasn’t even on the floor.
It was Terry Gannon. Terry Gannon? Nearly a foot and a half shorter than Sampson, and it was Gannon who got the strip.
It’s the kind of thing that’s never part of the plan, right? Plans do often change.
It is common practice for one generation to be resentful of the next, particularly when the younger group has learned about a famous person or event because of “all the wrong reasons.”
It’s safe to say that the younger generation will never upset their elders if they admit that the only reason they have ever heard of Jim Valvano is because they have seen his 1993 speech, relaying the message of the still thriving Jimmy V Foundation: "Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”That kind of charismatic enthusiasm for life is what made him famous, but what brought Valvano to the front pages of the sports world was a magical run in March of 1983.
Valvano was a dreamer in an almost child-like sense. He was the type to see his dreams as premonitions, confident they would come true.
He showed up to his first day of practice and told his team they were going to win the national championship. Valvano had dreamt of cutting down the nets and relayed the message to his troopp: One day, there will be a championship banner hanging in Reynolds Coliseum, and they would be the ones to put it there.
In just three seasons everyone thought he was crazy, sometimes even drawing the ire of other ACC coaching legends in a very short time on Tobacco Road.
The 1983 season marked senior campagins for Dereck Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe and Bailey
Whittenburg, Lowe, Bailey, McQueen and Gannon all paired with sophomore Lorenzo Charles, an eventual NABC All-Star and true Valvano recruit from Brooklyn.
Whittenburg, in particular, came into the 1983 season with a boost of confidence and a new toy. The ACC had finally agreed to implement a 3-point line, and Whit knew he had found his new favorite trick.
The Wolfpack started strong in the beginning of the season, losing only to Louisville, another Final Four team. They began the ACC schedule with a win against Clemson, but then the next conference game brought Sampson to Raleigh.
Whittenburg took over the game. He couldn’t miss a shot -- which was good because everyone in the arena knew he wasn’t going to pass. He had 27 points in the first half and the Wolfpack were blowing the Tigers out of the gym.
NC State had the lead and the momentum and it looked like it was finally going to exorcise the Ralph Sampson demon. But in the early goings of the second half, Whittenburg came around a screen and heaved up another shot from the corner.
The ball caught side iron, and Sampson grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Bailey in the scrum.
The ref blew the whistle, play halted and Sampson was nowhere near center stage. All eyes were on Whittenburg in the corner writhing around in pain on the hardwood. He had landed awkwardly on his defender's foot. Everyone that knew Whit knew it wasn’t going to keep him out of the game. He got himself up and ran down the court to set up the defense.
But something was wrong. Although he laughed in trainer Jim Rebon’s face when he came onto the court to take a look the injury, Whittenburg still used Rebon’s shoulder to help guide him to the bench.
Sampson led a comeback effort and stole the game from NC State. The trainers discovered after the game that Whittenburg had broken his foot and would miss significant time during the conference schedule and -- although they only had three losses at the time -- the Wolfpack would be without their leader for the foreseeable future.
NC State struggled through January, but things began to pick up after a win against Georgia Tech in Atlanta. For nearly the entire month of February, the Wolfpack had lost only to Notre Dame. But their Feb. 27 matchup brought them to Charlottesvile for Valvano v. Sampson VII.
NC State was winning games, even with the lingering possibility that Whittenburg would not make a return that season. But all doubts were erased when Whit was cleared to play against none other than Virginia.
Whittenburg’s return did not produce the results that Valvano and the team had expected. NC State lost to Virginia, then dropped the next game against Maryland to mark its 10th loss of the season -- which nobody expected to be its last.
Whittenburg was irate in the locker room following the loss to the Terrapins. He felt the walls closing in on his college career and he didn’t care if he had to literally fight someone to resist a bitter ending.
The Pack came out on Senior Night in Reynolds and dismantled Wake Forest. It would be one of the last days that anything NC State did was easy.
Although the team was not naïve to the idea, Valvano laid out the simple truth for the Wolfpack: In order to even make the NCAA tournament, let alone win a national championship, they needed to win the ACC championship.
In the first round of the conference tournament they drew Wake Forest, a team they had just beaten by 41 in the previous week. But of course, with three minutes remaining, the game was tied and Wake was holding for the final shot (pre-shot clock era).
Wake called a timeout and Valvano told his team to be more aggressive. Two men swarm the ball and trap on every inch of the court.
Lo and behold, Lowe gets a steal and brings it up court and now the Pack are playing for the final shot. Lowe dribbled to the top of the key and threaded a bounce pass into Charles on the low-block.
Charles was one of the team’s worst free-throw shooters and one of Wake’s top choices to send to the line. With just three seconds left, Charles was at the line for two.
The first shot was … ugly. It’s lucky it caught front iron. He shot the next with the entire weight of Raleigh on his back and sank it. The Pack survived and had a date with Dean Smith, Michael Jordan and North Carolina the following night.
To this day, Roy Williams still doesn’t understand the call made on Jordan in the ACC semifinal against NC State, but with six minutes remaining, Jordan fouled out and the Pack had new life.
They tied the game with just two seconds left and UNC’s Sam Perkins had a shot from about 35 feet out that missed by about a quarter of an inch. The game went to overtime and the Wolfpack quickly fell down by six.
Valvano deployed a tactic that wasn’t often used in this era in basketball. He told his team to foul to put UNC at the line -- something that is quite common today.
But UNC wasn’t used to this. It wasn't ready to take pressure free throws. On three chances, three different Tar Heels missed the front end of a one-and-one and NC State took the game 91-84 in overtime.
MARCH 13, 1983
Sampson had tortured NC State for four years, and now he had the crown jewels of the conference locked away with his own imposing 7-foot-4 frame as their only protection.
Gannon hadn’t entirely slayed the beast, but it was enough to win the conference title and get the automatic bid the Pack so desperately needed to make it to the NCAA tournament and they did it in an unexpected matter, with the last guy you expected to play the hero coming up with the steal.
It was completely unexpected. And it was just their style.
Things were rolling for the Wolfpack. They were flying high after cutting down the nets, for real this time. Whittenburg, in a 2013 documentary, "Survive and Advance," said, “Now we can see it. Now we can feel it.”
“Now we know, hey, this crazy Italian guy might be right.”
APRIL 4, 1983
Bailey had the ball, trapped in the corner with less than 10 seconds left. In a panic, he lofted a pass toward Whittenburg near half court. Whittenburg was lucky to pull it down and shake his defender.
With about three seconds left, Whittenburg heaved up a prayer.The ball floated in the air, seemingly in slow motion. And the shot was about a foot short.
It missed the basket completely.
But the ball landed in the hands of Lorenzo Charles. Still in the air, Charles redirected the ball into the hoop with a dunk.
It was an alley-OOPS.
The buzzer sounded. NC State had won the national championship.
Again, while it is great to learn about Jimmy V the 1993 speech, remembering Valvano must begin with what transpired after that shot (eventually) went in.
Valvano and Whittenburg had ritualistic found each other after all 10 games in the NC State postseason run and met for a huge bear hug.
After the national championship, Whittenburg got swallowed up in a pile of players and fans celebrating and Valvano went to look for him.
The image on Valvano running around the court in Albuquerque looking for someone to hug is one of the most iconic in the history of the sport. Valvano had his own brand of enthusiasm, but -- after what he just pulled off -- he had every right to be the happiest man in America.
They had survived two overtimes against Pepperdine. They had defeated Ralph Sampson AGAIN. They had beaten Georgia -- a team on a similar run, which was an ominous sign that runs inevitably end -- and now this? Against them?
But there he was. Running around the Pit with outstretched arms, looking for Whit.