Charlotte Smith didn't even get to see the ball fall through the net. "I just prayed and shot," says Smith, a junior forward for North Carolina. "Then the mob hit me."
Those who did see Smith's game-winning three-pointer against Louisiana Tech in the NCAA women's championship game Sunday at Richmond Coliseum won't soon forget it. It came from 20 feet out and, literally, in the nick of time—after junior forward Stephanie Lawrence's perfect inbounds pass from beneath the Carolina basket with .7 of a second left. It came just 14 seconds after senior guard Pam Thomas had put Tech up 59-57 with a 16-foot jumper, and four seconds after Tonya Sampson missed a layup that would have tied it up.
Sampson's miss set off a scramble, which led to a jump ball. The possession arrow pointed to Carolina, which called two timeouts to set up a shot. "That shot by Charlotte wasn't hard work, that shot wasn't luck," said Tar Heel junior forward Carrie McKee. "That shot was God."
Whatever else it was, the shot that lifted North Carolina to a 60-59 victory and its first national women's basketball title was a jaw-dropper, even for a team whose outrageously gifted athletes found a different way to win all six of its games in the tournament. Ranked fourth in the country despite being only three years removed from the ACC cellar, the Tar Heels were alternately considered overrated and underappreciated going into the tournament and in any case not a particularly good bet to reach the Final Four.
However, as the tournament rolled on, the Heels revealed formidable depth. When Smith, the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer during the regular season, sat out the regional semifinals against Vanderbilt after being ejected for fighting in the previous game, Sampson, the team's leading scorer and all-purpose adrenaline rush, combined with senior center Sylvia Crawley for 45 points and 16 rebounds against the Commodores. After Sampson got into early foul trouble against Purdue in the national semifinals last Saturday, Smith knocked in 10 straight points in a second-half run that broke the Boilermakers' backs. The Tar Heels' arsenal was so loaded that it wasn't until the final against Louisiana Tech, which had beaten Alabama 69-66 in the other semifinal, that Carolina's Achilles' heel was exposed.
Less than six minutes into the game, freshman point guard Marion Jones was charged with her third foul and consigned to the bench for the remainder of the half. The Tar Heels were clearly rattled by the loss of Jones. While Jones sat, her teammates committed eight turnovers, banged their heads against the Lady Techsters' iron-curtain defense and looked lost despite three treys from Sampson. Good grief, how did a freshman ever get so important while wearing Carolina blue?
When she arrived in Chapel Hill last fall, Jones was exactly the kind of player coach Sylvia Hatchell had had great success with: athletic, hardworking and fundamentally unsound. "We like to take good athletes and make them into great basketball players," says Hatchell.
Coming out of Thousand Oaks (Calif.) High, Jones was highly regarded—as a track athlete; she had qualified as an alternate on the '92 Olympic 4 x 100-meter relay team. Although she earned state player of the year honors in basketball, few schools were interested in her as a ballplayer. But Hatchell saw potential. When Jones, a 5'10" forward, showed up for practice in November, Hatchell asked her to develop a "point guard mentality." Jones spent an extra 45 minutes a day working on dribbling and, by the fourth game, she was starting at point.
Crawley, a 6'5" cousin of Georgeann Wells, the only woman to dunk in a Division I game, was scooped up out of Wintersville, Ohio, as raw material three years ago. "Nobody wanted Sylvia Crawley," says Hatchell. "Her shooting form needed a whole lot of work." Hatchell's staff made Crawley sit in a chair in front of the basket and shoot, 100 shots at a time. Though she now has what may be the best shooting form on the team, Crawley still takes knee bends at the free throw line as if she's looking for that chair. Like her cousin, Crawley can dunk. Both she and the 6-foot Smith do so during warmups, but neither has jammed in a game.
As for Smith, if nothing else, she has the bloodlines of a champion. Her uncle is David Thompson, whose Final Four heroics brought North Carolina State its first national title 20 years ago. Ironically, though, one of her biggest weaknesses coming out of Shelby (N.C.) High was her three-point shooting. "She was fundamentally not very good," says Hatchell. "She was an incredible athlete, though. When she jumped center, Wowee! I knew we could make a player out of Charlotte."
Will Smith welcome the attention that comes with a Final Four-winning shot? The daughter of a preacher, she grew up singing gospel music in her father's church but hasn't always been willing to make her talent public. "She has a beautiful voice, and she sings on the team bus," says McKee. "But when she was asked to sing the national anthem at a home game this year, she wouldn't do it. She wouldn't even sing for the team during this morning's devotionals."
So how did Smith feel about the performance pressure she was under at the close of the title game? "It was my assignment," says Smith, who grabbed a championship-game record 23 rebounds and who, by the way, wears number 23, not because of that other Carolina Final Four star Michael Jordan but because her mother, Etta, wore it in high school. "But I can't really put into words the way I feel right now."
When she can put it into words, she might use this one: fate. Last week she spoke with her uncle David about his Final Four experience. "Maybe two decades later," she said, "it'll be your niece who wins the national title."