After North Carolina won the NCAA title in 1982, they went into what was—at least relatively speaking—a March drought. While Dean Smith continued to churn out national contenders and at least get to the Sweet 16, there were no Final Four appearances for a decade. But in 1991, UNC had broken through to get back to a Final Four. And the 1993 North Carolina basketball edition got Smith into the category of coaches with multiple national championships.
The Tar Heels had a physical front line that included 7’0” center Eric Montross and 6’8” forward George Lynch. They combined for 31 points/18 rebounds per game. Donald Williams and Brian Reese were each double-digit scorers on the wings. And Derrick Phelps was a heady point guard that distributed the ball, fulfilling the same role Jimmy Black had for the star-laden ’82 champs.
North Carolina was ranked #7 to start the year and won their first eight games against mostly non-descript competition. Wins over Texas, Butler and Virginia Tech weren’t as good as they might look today. And even a win over Ohio State, who had ousted the Heels from the previous year’s NCAA Tournament didn’t say much—these Buckeyes were headed for a losing season.
A high-profile game with Michigan and it’s heralded Fab Five—a sophomore class that reached the NCAA final the previous year as freshmen—took place in Hawaii. The Wolverines pulled out a 79-78 win but it was clear that this would be a typical North Carolina team that could compete with the nation’s best. UNC was ranked #6 when ACC play began in January.
North Carolina ripped off wins in their first six league games. Georgia Tech and Virginia were both NCAA-bound in 1993 and both ranked in the Top 10 at the time they came to Chapel Hill. Both went home with a loss. The Tar Heels knocked off a good Florida State team that had future pros in Sam Cassell and Charlie Ward. And UNC won a big non-conference game at Seton Hall, who was headed for a 2-seed in the coming NCAAs.
In a year where the ACC was typically deep, the next two games were a blip and resulted in double-digit road losses. One came at Wake Forest, who was also an NCAA team in 1993. The other loss was more understandable, but also more aggravating—it came at Duke, who had merely won the last two national championships and become the benchmark of college basketball.
UNC stopped the bleeding and won their next five. They pulled out a one-point win at Georgia Tech to and crushed Virginia the road. North Carolina’s conference record reached 11-2 with three games to play. They were tied with Florida State for the league lead, with a slide by Duke knocking the Blue Devils well off the pace.
The stage was set for a North Carolina-Florida State battle on the final Saturday of February. Some of the steam came out of the matchup when the Seminoles lost to Duke in midweek. But it was no less impressive for the Tar Heels to go into Tallahassee and come out with an 86-76 win that clinched at least a share of the regular season title and the top seed in the conference tournament.
An 83-65 revenge blasting of Wake wrapped up the outright regular season championship. And an 83-69 home win over Duke to conclude the regular season was simply sweet because of the opponent. North Carolina was ranked #1 in the country and a lock for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
They got two easy wins at the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, beating Maryland and getting Virginia for a third time. But UNC lost a 77-75 nailbiter to Georgia Tech in the final. It cost the Tar Heels the top spot in the polls, but they were still the #1 seed in the East Regional when brackets came out later that day.
The 1993 Final Four was held in New Orleans and North Carolina’s road there would begin in nearby Winston-Salem. They opened with the expected blowout of East Carolina, an 85-65 win that was more workmanlike than overwhelming. A Round of 32 thumping of Rhode Island was overwhelming. UNC led 50-21 by halftime and won 112-67. By the end of the day, there was more good news—Duke had been knocked out.
The East Regionals would be at the Meadowlands and North Carolina would face stiff tests. Arkansas was the 4-seed and had the core of talent that would win the national championship a year later. This Sweet 16 game was tied 45-45 at the half and the Razorbacks were hitting from behind the arc.
UNC answered with its inside control. They held a 39-25 edge on the glass, with Lynch delivering 23 points/10 rebounds. Montross added 15/8, while Williams knocked down 22 from outside. It was enough to escape Friday night with an 80-74 win.
Cincinnati was the 2-seed and had been to the 1992 Final Four. The Bearcats were led by a future pro in point guard Nick Van Exel, who got the Heels for 23 points. But Cincy couldn’t hit from the outside the way Arkansas had. Williams had another big game with 20 points. Lynch was a force inside, with a 21/14 showing.
The game went to overtime, but North Carolina’s defense took over and held Cincinnati to just two points in the extra session. The final was 75-68 with Lynch an easy choice as the region’s Most Outstanding Player.
It was on to New Orleans and a battle with a familiar face. Kansas had ousted Carolina in the 1991 national semis. And even then, Jayhawk coach Roy Williams was a familiar face in Chapel Hill, from his time as a Smith assistant.
Kansas hit their outside shots, going 11-for-20 on treys, but similar to the Arkansas game, North Carolina answered with their inside dominance. This time it was Montross who got 23 points. Lynch remained consistent, with a 14/10 line. And Williams continued to provide floor balance, scoring 20. North Carolina won 78-68 in a game they seemed to have under reasonable control most of the way.
It was time for a rematch with Michigan. The Fab Five, led by Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, were looking to finish the job. And the battle was electric.
The Tar Heels and Wolverines were even in most areas statistically and no team ever seemed in control of the game throughout. UNC was led by Williams, who knocked down 25 points. The inside combo of Lynch and Montross combined for 28 more. North Carolina clung to a 73-71 lead in the closing moments when the sequence for which this game is remembered went down.
Webber was bringing the ball up in the backcourt and very obviously traveled. The Carolina bench erupted, but officials had already turned to run up the floor. It turned out not to matter. Webber, obviously uncomfortable, dribbled straight into the right corner, was trapped and wheeled to call a timeout. Michigan had none left. Technical foul. The Tar Heels hit the free throws and it was over. Williams picked up Most Outstanding Player honors.
The 77-71 win was reminiscent of Smith’s previous championship. That one was also in New Orleans and also came down to the opponent (Georgetown) making a big mental lapse on the possession to win or lose the game (Fred Brown throwing the ball directly to Carolina’s James Worthy). The correlation between the title games of 1982 and 1993 was not lost on anyone, even in the moment.
It has to be said though, that the first part of winning is to make sure you don’t beat yourself. North Carolina was, as they always were, exceptionally well-coached. They were in position to capitalize on someone else’s mistakes. That’s why even though the names on this 1993 team don’t jump off the page the way other editions of North Carolina basketball do, they won a national championship.