Nearly three decades later, Charlotte Smith still remembers how low she felt during the final timeout of the North Carolina season.
The last 16 seconds of the 1994 national championship game were not going well. Pam Thomas’ baseline jumper had given Louisiana Tech a 59-57 lead. The Tar Heels had rushed the ball down the court and missed a shot, the scramble for the rebound leading to a jump and giving them the ball again, because the possession arrow blessedly pointed their way. Only 0.7 seconds remained. They had used a timeout to set up an inbounds play that was to be a lob to 6-5 Sylvia Crawley but when that was covered, called another timeout. In the huddle, karma was not good.
“I was living in that final timeout in hopelessness,” Smith said. “It was a sinking feeling when I looked up at the clock from the floor because I felt at that moment it was over. What could you ever do in seven-tenths of a second?”
Turns out, a lot.
A 3-pointer from the right wing taken, and made.
A national championship won.
An NCAA tournament moment frozen in time.
And a life changed.
“When I look back at that moment, the magnitude of it is still pretty shocking because it created waves all over the world,” Smith said of the win-it-all shot she buried at the buzzer in one of the most stunning moments ever seen in March, or April. “It put not only women’s basketball on the map and UNC women’s basketball on the map, but Charlotte Smith became a household name.”
She had 20 points and 23 rebounds that day — the latter a title-game record that still stands. But it was her last play in the 60-59 Tar Heels’ victory that lives forever. For keepsake value, it was a shot to rank up there with Duke’s Christian Laettner beating Kentucky. But that was in the regional, and Laettner had 2.1 seconds. An eternity compared to 0.7.
Or Morgan William’s jumper for the Mississippi State’s women that ended Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak at the 2017 Final Four. But remember, the Bulldogs were tied, not behind.
So were the Villanova and North Carolina men in the 2017 title game when Kris Jenkins nailed his buzzer-beating 3. As were the North Carolina State and Houston men in 1983, when Lorenzo Charles’ famous dunk finished the Cougars. That dunk happened because Charles was in the right place to grab a desperation airball from Dereck Whittenburg — Charlotte Smith’s cousin.
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Smith’s shot belongs in the NCAA tournament’s inner sanctum with all of the others, but has its own aura. So much had to happen to even make it possible. So many what-ifs, against an opponent that had won 25 games in a row. To understand that, we should go back to when Tonya Sampson’s missed shot for North Carolina bounced away in the final frantic seconds.
A scrum for the rebound ensued under the basket, including Tar Heels freshman and future Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, who got enough of her hands on the ball to force a jump.
What if the possession arrow had been pointing to Louisiana Tech? “Then it’s over,” Smith said. “All things had to work together for the good of that situation.”
Timeout North Carolina. Coach Sylvia Hatchell called for a play to be a lob inside to Crawley that would tie the game and force overtime, but reminded the inbounds person — Stephanie Lawrence — that if Crawley was covered, call another timeout. Which she was.
What if Lawrence had tried to force the ball to Crawley? Lots of players would. “She’s so smart. That’s why she’s a coach,” Hatchell would say later of Lawrence, who is currently at West Florida. Lawrence once recounted her thought process for a North Carolina athletics publication.
“I can remember those last moments of the game like they happened this morning. It had been my job to throw the inbounds pass for every inbounds play my entire career, not just for that one . . . As I stepped onto the court to run this play, I remembered earlier in the game that Louisiana Tech had switched the screen and tapped the pass away for a steal. So as that play developed, I watched to see if they were going to play it the same way, which they did, so I called our last timeout.”
Hatchell consulted with her assistants what to do and was reminded that a successful play before was called 30s. That meant Smith was to set up on the low block right in front of Lawrence, then slip out to the right wing, while Sampson went to the basket as a decoy and Crawley set a screen. This time, Hatchell told the players, they were going for the win, not a tie.
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What if Hatchell had paid more attention to one particular stat? Up to that moment, Smith had taken only 31 3-pointers all season, and made only eight. For her career, she was a 24-percent shooter from long range. She had missed both her attempts in this game. That would suggest she should be nobody’s deep option for the last gasp.
Then again, she had scored 16 second-half points after going 0-for-6 and scoring one point in the first half. And she was a competitor. “I’m sure I was in double digit rebounding at the first half, because I said, hey, if I can’t throw the ball in the ocean at least I can rebound,” she said. Still, this task was something else.
“I’m living in inadequacy,” Smith said of the timeout. “I’m thinking I’m not worthy of taking this shot, so who is she going to choose? When she called my name to say that I was going to take the shot, my gut fell out again. All of this is on the line. Either I make it and everybody loves me, or I miss it and everyone hates me.
“There was so much pressure that leaving the timeout I completely forget the play. I didn’t even know what we were running. I go to Sylvia Crawley and ask what play we are running. She said 30s. When you look at me in that huddle, the outside perception is, `she had ice water in her veins.’ But inside all I could feel was hopelessness and fear.”
As the teams set up for the last play, the North Carolina players on the bench were clasping hands. Louisiana Tech’s Kendra Neal stood in front of Lawrence on the left side of the basket to harass the inbounds pass. But under instructions from coach Leon Barmore, Neal at the last instant left Lawrence to help on Sampson or Crawley in the paint. That gave Lawrence an open look.
What if Barmore had not changed his mind? Under any conditions, Lawrence had a difficult pass to make, threading the ball over all those bodies to Smith on the opposite side. If closely guarded, she might never have been able to find Smith. “From where I stood, all I could see was her hand behind a screening Sylvia Crawley and Sylvia’s 6-5 defender,” she said. “I aimed for Charlotte’s hand. I couldn’t tell if it had gotten to her.”
Barmore, a coach with a national championship and 86.9 winning percentage at Louisiana Tech, would always second guess himself about that decision. “There's a lot of good things that have been said about Coach Barmore through the years," he once said. “He's done this, he's won that. But I'll tell you what. I'll take responsibility for that loss. We should definitely have had somebody on the ball."
The play began, and no one switched off on Smith as she went to the wing. No one.
“I’m sure everyone was assuming it was going to Tonya Sampson because three people literally went with Tonya Sampson,” Smith said. “It was complete miscommunication. I’m literally backpedaling out there all by myself.”
All that was left was to take the shot. And make it. Was this the proverbial case of knowing it was in the instant the ball left her hands?
“No. But I sure was praying that it was good.”
Remembered Crawley, “It seemed like the entire building went silent.”
And Lawrence, “It seemed to take minutes, not seconds, for the ball to reach the basket.”
When it did, the wild celebration began, the other Tar Heels pouring upon the star of the night, the woman wearing No. 23. Wait a second. No. 23 winning North Carolina a national championship with a late shot from the wing? That rings a bell.
Right. Michael Jordan in 1982. Smith said she was No. 23 partly because of Jordan but also because her mother wore that number. But it adds to the legacy in Chapel Hill.
Four years after finishing last in the ACC, North Carolina was national champion. National networks poured into Chapel Hill the next week to tell her story. There were so many angles, especially her family. Nine years before, cousin Dereck helped North Carolina State to a title. And 20 years earlier, uncle David Thompson lifted another North Carolina State team to a championship over John Wooden and UCLA. This moment was hers.
“I still get chills. I still get excited. I still can feel the joy,” she said. “It’s like all of the memories of that moment, all the emotions 20-plus years later, you still can feel all of that.”
Smith, Jones and Lawrence returned the next season and led the Tar Heels to an 18-0 start, but their NCAA tournament road ended in the Sweet 16 against Stanford. Magic doesn’t happen every year.
Now she’s been head coach at Elon for 11 seasons and has never run out of people asking her about 1994. She likely never will. “I wonder what my life would be like if I hit the shot in this day and age,” she mused. Imagine the social media. Or the NIL opportunities.
Just last year year, she and Hatchell were together in an airport, and Smith had a question she had always wanted to ask: “Why’d you pick me?
She said Hatchell told her it was as if God was giving her the right plan. The decision to go for the win came from the heart, as much as the mind. “I guess in that moment, when you think about choosing what most people would deem the most unlikely to be chosen, I guess you can call it divine intervention,” Smith said.
The one thing she likes to tell kids about is the sense of fear she had in that timeout huddle, before going out to hit the shot that transformed her life. There was drama and glory in that 3-pointer, but also a message.
“You have to have the courage to rise up and walk in your greatness,” she said. “Accept the challenge that’s presented to you.”