The 1982 North Carolina basketball team was coming off a strong 1981 season that saw them reach the final game before being manhandled in the second half by a tough Indiana team. UNC was bringing the core four players back from that team, built around forwards James Worthy and Sam Perkins, both with long NBA careers ahead of them. A third forward was Matt Doherty, a respectable shooter and role player and the show was run by Jimmy Black, an intelligent senior point guard.
These four appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the preseason #1 team. The fifth piece of the puzzle was still undecided, but Smith would insert a freshman guard named Michael Jordan into that spot.
Carolina met preseason expectations throughout the year and the battle between them and Virginia at the top of the ACC was the story that defined the regular season. The Cavs had Ralph Sampson, a 7’4” center in his junior year and the consensus best player in America. Virginia reached the 1981 Final Four and was favored to beat UNC in the semi-finals, but a big 39-point performance from Carolina’s Al Wood sent the top-seeded Cavs to a 78-65 defeat and gave them their own unique grudge to carry into the offseason.
The two rivals split two regular season meetings and met again in an anticipated ACC tournament final that had a controversial ending. It wasn’t a bad call or a disputed outcome. North Carolina won 47-45, but their tactic of going to the “Four Corners”, spreading the floor and stalling away much of the last eight minutes.
To some of us, it was simply Smith doing what he felt was best to win a basketball game. To others it was a case of someone essentially ruining a great basketball game by all but refusing the play. The game decided a lot more than a tournament title and the #1 seed in the East. It began a five-year process that would end with the implementation of a shot clock and three-point line.
The NCAA Tournament was still at 48 teams, so the top four seeds in each region got a first-round bye and didn’t play until Saturday or Sunday (it was 1985 when the field expanded to 64). North Carolina’s first game was against ninth-seeded James Madison, and the Heels got all they could handle, going to the wire in a 52-50 game. It sent them to Raleigh for the regionals.
Alabama was the opponent in the round of 16, and the Tide were led by a good point guard in Ennis Whatley and a solid power forward in Bobby Lee Hurt. What they lacked was Carolina’s balance throughout the lineup and all five starters scored in double digits, winning 74-69. By an odd coincidence, ‘Bama had lost to Bob Knight’s first national championship team, undefeated Indiana in 1976, by that same score in this same round.
North Carolina paired up with third-seeded Villanova for the regional final, as the Wildcats had the foundations of the team that would stun the world at the 1985 Final Four when they won it all. Ed Pinckney was at center, Gary McClain was at point and Dwayne McClain at small forward, all freshman drawing significant minutes. Burly John Pinone was in the center spot. A well-coached team by Rollie Massimino, Villanova was a good darkhorse, but UNC played its best game of the tournament to date in a 70-60 win that ticketed them for New Orleans.
NOTHING COULD BE FINER
On the surface it appeared Smith’s team had drawn a break in their national semi-final matchup. Three powerhouses had reached the Final Four. Along with UNC, fellow #1 seed Georgetown was here, as was second-seeded Louisville.
By contrast, Houston, the #6 seed in the Midwest and winner of a bracket gutted by upsets, looked like the odd team out in New Orleans. But the Cougars, slated to play UNC in the early afternoon tip (not until 1998 would the first game be pushed back into the late afternoon/early evening), were a burgeoning power.
Akeem Olajuown was a dominant center as a freshman and on his way to a stellar NBA career. The same could be said of junior forward Clyde Drexler. Along with solid college players like guard Michael Young, Houston had beaten the #3 seed (Tulsa) and the #2 seed (Missouri) to get here, so though the bracket was gutted, the Cougars had done a substantial portion of the gutting themselves.
North Carolina needed its stars to step up and no one answered the bell better than Perkins, who scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to key a 68-63 win. It set up a battle with Georgetown who outlasted Louisville 50-46.
Though UNC was the #1 team in the nation, the Hoyas were the hot team, playing stifling defense. None of their tournament opponents had scored more than 50 points and they were anchored in the middle by freshman center Patrick Ewing, shotblocker extraordinaire. The close friendship of Smith and Georgetown coach John Thompson was a big part of the storyline and it was a superb championship game matchup for CBS in its first year of televising the tournament, a run that has gone on uninterrupted to this day.
The game itself lived up to the hype and was one for the ages. It was tight throughout, neither team ever really in control. A key decision by Thompson was to have Ewing indiscriminately block shots early on and try to intimidate Carolina’s shooters. The Hoya center was called for goaltending five times. In a close game this decision is easy to criticize, especially since UNC was unaffected by it. But a lot of teams might have allowed that to get into their heads. North Carolina wisely just shrugged their shoulders, took the two points and kept playing, but the gambit was a reasonable risk by Thompson and Ewing.
In the meantime, Worthy was delivering a dominating performance, scoring 28 points. Georgetown still led 62-61 as the game reached the final half-minute. Coming out of a timeout, Smith set up a play with several options, but suspected who Georgetown would choose to leave uncovered. He gave a word of encouragement to his still mostly unknown freshman—“Knock it in Michael.”
Smith had anticipated correctly. Jordan got the ball on the left wing and followed his coach’s instructions. He knocked it down. Carolina had the lead, but Georgetown had plenty of time to get a good shot. Guard Fred Brown brought the ball over midcourt when brain lock kicked in. He threw the ball directly to Worthy, who raced downcourt and was fouled with just a few seconds remaining. Worthy missed the free throws, but it was to no matter. UNC had won 63-62 and Dean Smith had his long-awaited first national championship.