The Regular Season The Whole Story With resilience and maturity, the Tar Heels showed there was more to them than flashy stats

April 22, 1993

NOW WE CAN SEE IT ALL AS FORESHADowing, elements of a plot that
could have only one outcome. Thus within North Carolina's 1992-93
regular season -- which was way beyond regular, even by Tar Heel
standards -- lay buried the seeds of its inevitable NCAA title. While
it's true that the numbers were impressive (with a 26-3 record, North
Carolina entered the postseason ranked first in the AP poll) in the
systematic reckoning of coach Dean Smith, the sum was always greater
than the statistics. What became unquantifiably clear during the 97
days of the season was that this Carolina team was blessed with the $
resolve and desire necessary to win a championship.
How else besides R and D to explain the fact that the Tar Heels
steadfastly avenged all three of their losses, first beating Wake
Forest, then Duke and finally Michigan? Or their comeback against
Florida State when they were down by 20 points with less than 10
minutes to play? Or the monumental maturation of the fab recruiting
class of 1990 -- forwards Brian Reese and Pat Sullivan, guard Derrick
Phelps and center Eric Montross? Or, for that matter, the fame of one
Pearce Landry, whose name appears between Ed Geth's and George
Lynch's in the final regular-season stats like some computer hiccup:
one game, one field goal attempt, one rebound, one assist, one foul,
one steal?
Landry, who is attending North Carolina on an academic
scholarship, did indeed suit up for the Tar Heels in their 85-56
blowout of Notre Dame on Feb. 23. A sophomore from Greensboro, N.C.,
Landry, who had played 35 minutes for the jayvee in a one-point loss
to Hargrave Military Academy earlier in the day, was sitting in
street clothes watching the vee play the Irish at the Smith Center
from a seat behind the bench. With 10 minutes to go in the game, one
of the coaches told him to get dressed; with 55 seconds left, he
entered the game. ''Every kid in North Carolina has dreamed of
playing for the Tar Heels,'' Landry said afterward. ''I know this was
just a temporary thing and I might never put on that varsity uniform
again, but I was here tonight.''
That's the way it was in Chapel Hill in 1992-93: Every minute
mattered. They started to matter even before they counted, as in the
Blue-White scrimmage on Nov. 20, when Montross first asserted his
7-foot, 270-pound self, banging the breath out of backup center Kevin
Salvadori and then colliding with Phelps, who limped to the locker
room with a sore knee that sidelined him for the first game, against
Old Dominion. But the Tar Heels' main concern when they took on the
Monarchs on Dec. 1 was finding an outside shooter to replace guard
Hubert Davis, who had graduated.
Any anxiety about accuracy was quickly dispelled: North Carolina
romped past Old Dominion 119-82, connecting on 75.4% of its field
goal attempts. And Donald Williams, a 6 ft. 2 in. sophomore from
Garner, N.C., making his first career start, ably stepped in for
Davis, canning two threes and scoring a team-high 21 points. By his
finely calibrated standards, Smith's postgame comments qualified as a
zeal of approval. ''For a season opener,'' he said, ''I'm happy
with it.''
There was much for Smith to be happy with in the next four weeks,
as the Tar Heels racked up seven victories by an average of 27
points. But then came the Wolverines. Nowhere on Carolina's 1992-93
schedule does the word Michigan appear. Yet after the Heels whipped
Southwestern Louisiana 80-59 in the first round of the Rainbow
Classic in Honolulu, there in the semifinals stood the Fab Five.
The two teams went toe-to-toe, as the lead changed hands 10 times
in the second half. There were 13 seconds to play when Williams
landed a floater in the lane to put Carolina ahead 78-77. Then, with
two ticks left, Michigan guard Jimmy King, working the baseline,
squeezed off a jumper that glanced off the rim. Point guard Jalen
Rose, well positioned underneath, retrieved the miss and tossed up a
high-arcing bank shot at the buzzer to give the Wolverines a 79-78
win.
''I thought ((King's shot)) was going to go in,'' said Michigan
coach Steve Fisher. ''Jalen's, now, that's luck.'' Forward Chris
Webber and 6 ft. 9 in. Juwan Howard had held Montross to 14 points,
while Williams struggled from the perimeter, scoring 13 points and
sinking only one of four three-pointers. North Carolina had suffered
its first loss of the season, but it had taken measure of itself.
King even sounded a warning to the Tar Heels' ACC foes: ''You watch
Williams. He didn't do much tonight, but you can tell he's going to
light somebody up some night.''
The conference got a taste of Carolina's potency in a hurry. On
Jan. 20 Virginia, unbeaten and on a 16-game winning streak, came to
Chapel Hill to take on the Heels. That evening, the Cavaliers, 80-58
losers, left Chapel Hill to chants of ''Overrated! Overrated!''
Montross and Salvadori combined for 26 points and 11 rebounds,
prompting Virginia coach Jeff Jones to say, ''We were wrong in
feeling we could slug it out with a team that has that much depth and
that much size.''
After five straight conference wins, by an average of 21.2 points,
Smith asked someone how long it had been since a team had gone
undefeated in the ACC. He was told that it had happened in 1986-87,
when it was done by a team from Chapel Hill.
That point seemed moot one week later at the Smith Center, where
Florida State pounded to a 65-44 lead with 11:31 to play. A few hours
before the game, Seminole coach Pat Kennedy had been thumbing through
the North Carolina media guide when he lighted on three pages devoted
to the Tar Heels' most fabled comebacks. Kennedy then watched
Carolina log in another record-book entry. Smith called a timeout
with 9:21 left, trailing 71-54. ''I just wanted Florida State to
think about it,'' Smith said. Apparently the Tar Heels thought about
it, too. After having missed 14 threes, they proceeded to hit five
straight. In less than three minutes Carolina had trimmed the lead to
four. With 1:36 to go, a Lynch layup put the Heels ahead for good.
The final: North Carolina 82, Florida State 77.
The Tar Heels were now 17-1, and if they needed a shot of
adversity to test their resolve, they got it three days later, on
Tobacco Road. Wake Forest crushed the Tar Heels 88-62 on Jan. 30 in
Winston-Salem, N.C. The Carolina defense broke down, allowing the
Demon Deacons to shoot 60% from the floor. ''It seemed like everybody
wasn't interested,'' Phelps said. ''We were just out there to be out
there.''
North Carolina had to stomach another crushing defeat on Feb. 3,
when home- standing Duke cooled the Heels 81-67. Montross stood tall
against the Cameron Crazies, delivering 22 points and 13 rebounds,
but Carolina's outside game failed; the Tar Heels shot a season-low
37.9%. Blue Devil point guard Bobby Hurley maneuvered with ease
through the North Carolina defense, scoring 20 points and handing out
seven assists. ''This definitely will be a learning experience for
us,'' said Montross. ''I think someday we'll be able to look back at
this and say we're not glad to have lost, but we're glad it happened.
This team has a dream for this season, and to make it come true,
we'll just have to make some other things happen that aren't
happening now.''
In the Tar Heels' next game, at home against N.C. State, things
began to happen. Little things. Big things. Everything. North
Carolina won 104-58. ''Hungry,'' was how Wolfpack swingman Mark Davis
described the Tar Heels. Such drive persisted down the stretch, and
if there were any doubts lingering about the team's potential, the
schedule provided two opportunities to eradicate them: March 3
against Wake Forest and March 7 against Duke, both in Chapel Hill.
Against the Deacons the Tar Heels buried their first three
three-pointers -- two by Williams, one by Reese -- and never trailed.
In a 44-point turnaround from the Jan. 30 loss, Carolina annihilated
Wake Forest 83-65. But the ensuing 83-69 conquest of Duke was sweeter
still. Even Smith marveled at a defense that harassed Hurley into two
of 12 shooting while contesting every Blue Devil shot. ''They
didn't seem comfortable with the ball,'' said Smith. Williams, true
to King's prophecy, bagged a career-high 27 points. ''Duke has always
been a big game because it's our biggest rivalry,'' Montross said.
''What's important is that we get stronger with each game.''
Smith put it even more firmly: ''We're playing our best.'' And
when the 1992-93 regular season was over, the Tar Heels were atop the
ACC, poised to make a title run and left with one last score to
settle.

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