The result, of course, wasn't worth an ash off Dean Smith's cigarette. It's too early. We play them again. Hey, there are too many good teams around to get worked up over one win. "It's basically going to be a fans' game," Virginia's Ralph Sampson had said two days before tip-off. "It's exciting for them but just another game for us."
What it was, quipped John Feinstein of The Washington Post, was "this week's game of the century."
And, really, after it was all over at Chapel Hill last Saturday afternoon, after North Carolina had kept another challenger from scaling the fortress, what had been wrought? Well, plenty. The game gave the whole country an opportunity to watch the No. 1 Tar Heels hook up with the No. 2 Cavaliers via TV in a suspenseful showdown. It proved that the 7'4" Sampson can be a devastating offensive force. And, as North Carolina came from behind to win 65-60, the game embellished Dean Smith's reputation as a master strategist. The Tar Heels' 11th victory without a loss gave them undisputed claim to the No. 1 spot in the polls they have enjoyed since the preseason. Twice now North Carolina has beaten its closest pursuer in the rankings. Both Virginia and Kentucky, which fell to Carolina 82-69 on Dec. 26, were undefeated and ranked No. 2 when they played the Tar Heels.
The imprint of the game will remain, not because it was a masterpiece—both sides were guilty of shaky backcourt play—but because so many exceptional players were involved, leading men not only for the present but also for the next few years. For North Carolina there was, enduringly, the Coach, who demonstrated the respect he commands in Chapel Hill with a brief announcement over the public-address system. More on Smith later. There was Michael Jordan, the Natural, a graceful 6'5" freshman who has been subject to endless media comparisons with such ACC stars of the past as David Thompson, Walter Davis and Al Wood. And there was the fierce four-armed, multitalented Worthy-Perkins, a creature who could be the biggest factor in Smith's drive for his first NCAA crown.
For Virginia, there was the backcourt tandem of Jeff Jones and Coatlen Othell Wilson, the former a steady, heady player from Kentucky, the latter a fast, free flier from suburban Washington, D.C. There was Jim Miller, an aw-shucks freshman from the hills of West Virginia and a dabbler in magic, who next summer expects to be pulling basketballs out of his Ronald McDonald suit. Finally, there was, supremely, the 88-inch tailor from Harrisonburg, Va., Ralph Sampson.
College basketball, even when played in The Land of the Four Corners, rarely unfolds according to the script, and this game was no exception. The Cavaliers had relied on balance and depth, with the proud Sampson content to dish off and score about 15 points a game, while Coach Terry Holland gave substantial playing time to no fewer than nine men. Of course, you can do that when you're beating Fairfield 107-66 or BYU-Hawaii 118-84. But on Saturday Sampson kept the ball and put it up—and down, dunking with either hand—for 30 points. He also had 19 rebounds. No other Virginia player got more than seven points or four rebounds.
But Sampson couldn't quite complete the personal epic he'd been building. With 4:01 to go and Virginia up 54-53, he missed two free throws. Trailing 61-58 with 15 seconds left, the Cavaliers went inside to Sampson even though Smith had the entire state of North Carolina collapsing on him—a defense called a point-and-one, a matchup zone variation on the old box-and-one. Sampson missed on a drive in the crowded lane and then missed the follow-up. North Carolina took possession and clinched the game with two free throws at 0:12.
The Tar Heels had defeated tougher competition (Kansas, Southern Cal, Tulsa and Kentucky) than Virginia had faced, with a first five that may develop into one of the school's best ever. Only Point Guard Jimmy Black is a senior. Often criticized in the past for oversubstituting, Smith knew almost from the first day of preseason practice that this time he would have to live or die with his starters. Indeed, the Cavs believed that depth was their biggest asset. But it was the pressure shooting of North Carolina's sixth man, Jim Braddock, that decided the issue on Saturday.
Smith's P.A. appearance, which followed a foul call on the Tar Heels' James Worthy with 13:27 remaining, wasn't in the script, either. The Carmichael Auditorium crowd had no sooner begun the popular rhythmic cheer about the waste material of a large farm animal when Smith went to the scorer's table, grabbed a microphone, and said, "No swearing. And no waving hands like that. Let's treat them the right way!" The fans, properly chastened, applauded and shut up. It was the first time in his 20-year career at Chapel Hill that Smith had washed out a crowd's mouth with soap.
"I'm no prude," said Smith, somewhat embarrassed by the postgame attention given the incident, "but I don't think there's a place for that kind of thing. Hey, you're not going to write that that had anything to do with the game, are you? Our players were the reason we won."
Particularly Jordan and Braddock. Jordan missed all three of his shots in the first half and threw the ball away twice. But he had started slowly against Kentucky, too, before making all six of his second-half field-goal attempts to finish with 21 points. Following Worthy's advice to keep shooting, Jordan made five of seven after the intermission Saturday and finished with 16 points, one fewer than Worthy.
Braddock, a junior, played superbly after Black fouled out with 7:23 to go. Braddock hit both ends of a one-and-one to give the Tar Heels that 61-58 lead with 33 seconds left, and then made the clinching free throws. His teammates weren't surprised by his accuracy at the line. Braddock once made 257 consecutive foul shots in practice and has had the same free-throw ritual—every North Carolina player must establish his own ritual and never deviate from it—since the fourth grade: five bounces, look at the front rim, take a deep breath, shoot.
Good things always seems to happen to loyal Tar Heel foot soldiers like Braddock, a heavily recruited youngster out of Chattanooga who has been overshadowed by Black. Braddock considered transferring after his freshman year but stayed after long deliberation. "I realized I'd have to wait my turn like everybody else," he says. "With Coach Smith you're not going to walk in and start as a freshman—unless you're somebody like Michael Jordan, of course."
Of course. Jordan is that rare player who's able to fit into Smith's system and still come on with his playground moves when they're most effective. "The best thing about Michael is that he pays attention," says Smith. "You tell him something and he does it. He's a freshman with a lot of pressure on him, yet I'd say he's taken no more than two bad shots the entire year. Defensively, of the five starters he's fifth, but that's mainly because the four others are so good."
A native of Wilmington, N.C., Jordan is widely thought of as one of those homegrown talents linked umbilically to the UNC campus. Not so. "I grew up hating North Carolina because I rooted for David Thompson and [North Carolina] State," he says. "I didn't like this place until I came here for basketball camp my junior year in high school." Despite his antipathy toward UNC, one of Jordan's heroes is former Tar Heel Walter Davis, with whom he is often, and accurately, compared, though Jordan will probably develop into a better rebounder—he's pulling down 5.3 a game—and defensive player.
Sophomore Matt Doherty is never compared with Davis or other North Carolina swingmen of the past because he lacks their scoring ability. But Doherty is as valuable to the team as anyone. He's an intelligent player who's second to Perkins in field-goal percentage, second to Black in assists, first in free-throw percentage and fourth in scoring. The 6'8" Doherty is destined to be known as the classic overachiever, who, in his own words, "is just here to keep everybody else happy."
The Heels' Worthy-Perkins creature emerged last season and was most prominent when it played 80 minutes in the NCAA semifinal game against Virginia, sandwiching Sampson into an 11-point, nine-rebound nightmare. The result was a 78-65 North Carolina victory that sent the Tar Heels to the title game, which they lost 63-50 to Indiana. Last Thursday, Virginia's assistant coach, Craig Littlepage, made constant and almost unconscious references to "Worthy and Perkins, Perkins and Worthy" as he went over his scouting report sheets.
Indeed, Worthy and Sam Perkins have become such an impressive tandem inside that it's almost impossible to think of one without the other. The most effective shot in college basketball, besides a Sampson slam, may well be Worthy's short turnaround jumper. Virginia, for the most part, took the shot away from him, but he made a turnaround over Miller with 3:47 left that gave North Carolina its first lead since the eight-minute mark of the first half. If Sampson stumbles later in the season, Worthy, a 6'9" junior, could be Player of the Year.
Perkins, a sophomore who also goes six-nine, is a 61.4% shooter with good range on his jump shot, adroit timing as a shot blocker and the composure of a senior. Example: He drew his third foul with 3:32 to go in the first half but didn't commit his fourth until just 4:01 remained in the game. Worthy did move over to cover Sampson much of the second half, but the second of Perkins' two blocks, which gave him 28 for the season, was a rejection of a Sampson shot. "I guess I'd say I'm a smaller version of what he is," says Perkins.
At the moment, though, no one comes close to dominating a game the way Sampson does. He banged in consecutive 18-foot jumpers when Virginia was sluggish early in the game. He had Worthy staring at his sneaker treads when he stuffed an alley-oop pass from Jones early in the second half. He may be the only human being in America capable of 1) faking a 10-foot fadeaway jumper and then dunking without traveling as he did when he gave the Cavs their last lead at 58-57 with 2:08 to play, and 2) blocking a Perkins shot while standing flat-footed, as he did in the first half. All that and he sews many of his own shirts because he has trouble buying them off the rack.
Not until Saturday was it clear just how good an offensive player Sampson has become. To say he was overshadowed in Virginia's first 12 games would be inaccurate, but so many other things about the team commanded attention. Like the way the speedy Wilson has helped turn Virginia from the patterned, Jeff Lamp-from-the-corner club of last season to the quick-break, wide-open team of this year. And the play of freshman Guard Tim Mullen, who has earned a starting role with his southpaw shooting. And the potential of Miller, a high-percentage inside shooter who intends to do magic tricks as a summer job at a McDonald's in Charlottesville. And the contribution of backup Center Kenton Edelin, who's shooting 81% from the floor (21 of 26 through Saturday) after arriving as an unlikely walk-on last year. Heck, Virginia even won two games by an average margin of almost 30 points without Sampson, who broke his right ring finger in the third game of the year.
But even the doubters now know that he's worth every dollar the pros will once again offer him after the season. Further, he has developed into a composed and reasonably articulate young man, who did the college game a favor by refusing the jump to the NBA after being named Player of the Year last year as a sophomore. That's probably why no one rebuked him following Saturday's game when he said, "I think it's debatable who's No. 1. I still think we may be the best team in the country."