Skip to main content

NCAA East Regional Off To the Races North Carolina knocked off a pair of thoroughbreds, Arkansas and Cincinnati, to make the Final Four

MOST OF THE NORTH CAROLINA PLAYERS KEPT the photograph in the same
place: tacked to the wall above their beds. They wanted it to be the
last thing they saw at night and the first thing they saw in the
morning. It was a black-and- white snapshot of the New Orleans
Superdome, and there, across the glowing scoreboard, was written
NORTH CAROLINA 1993 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. Dean Smith had passed out the
doctored photographs last November, shortly after the team's first
practice of the season. ''That picture has been a motivational
factor,'' said sophomore guard Donald Williams as the Tar Heels
headed for the NCAA East Regional in East Rutherford, N.J. ''It's
really kept us going.''
And now, in North Carolina's 13th straight appearance in the Sweet
16, the Tar Heels would have to remember those photographs above
their beds in Chapel Hill. While it was true that Carolina had
history on its side -- an Atlantic Coast Conference school had won
the last five East Regionals -- the Tar Heels would have to focus on
something to get them past the frenetic, multilimbed presses of
Arkansas and Cincinnati, their regional semifinal and final
opponents, respectively. ''North Carolina is like a sledgehammer, and
we're like ants,'' said Razorback coach Nolan Richardson before his
Arkansas team faced the Tar Heels. ''To win we have to nip away at
And nip away they did, trapping and pressing to an 11-point lead
midway through the first half. North Carolina was well schooled in
protecting the ball, however, prepared even for a foe like the Hogs,
who had forced a total of 50 turnovers in their first two tournament
games. But the Heels would need someone to step forward and take care
of the scoring. ''Dean Smith gets a lot of credit for inventing
things,'' said Richardson. ''But the best thing to invent is a
Michael Jordan or a James Worthy.'' This time Smith invented Williams
and forward George Lynch. They ripped the Razorbacks' miserly defense
for 45 points, and Williams scored the Heels' last nine in an 80-74
Still, North Carolina could not rest. In the first 17 minutes
against Cincinnati, the Tar Heels were ragged and looked much the
slower team as the Bearcats raced to a 15-point lead behind guard
Nick Van Exel's six three- pointers -- including one he buried while
falling out of bounds.
Then Carolina -- sparked by the solid low-post play of Lynch, who
finished the half with 13 points, six rebounds and four steals --
rallied and by intermission trailed by only a point. ''I usually say
something like, 'Let's cut the lead down to eight by halftime,' ''
Smith said after the game. ''But I didn't say that today, and I'm
Cincinnati was not so pleased. ''I knew they wouldn't crack,
because of their coach,'' said Van Exel after the game. ''I just
didn't think they'd come at us that fast.''
Fast? Hadn't lack of speed been the aptly named Tar Heels'
shortcoming in the past? Hadn't that been an apparent deficiency in
the first half against Cincinnati? No longer. In the second half
against the Bearcats, Carolina made several key defensive switches:
The most notable was putting quick-footed point guard Derrick Phelps
(''The best defensive player in the country,'' Smith called him
before the game) on Van Exel. The Cincinnati Kid was limited to just
a deuce after intermission.
With Van Exel bottled up, the Bearcats needed something to buoy
them. It was too late for one of their ''deejay sessions,'' in which
the players gather near the back of the team bus to rap (that's
talking, not singing, for you younger readers) about what might be
bothering them. So they settled for a $ boost from senior guard
Tarrance Gibson, who slashed down the court for a game-tying layup
with 0.8 of a second remaining.
On the final play of regulation, an alley-oop inbounds pass landed
cleanly in the hands of Brian Reese, who, incredibly, then shanked
what would have been a game-winning dunk off the back of the rim.
Maybe it would have been easier for Cincinnati if Reese had sunk the
basket. Now, instead of getting a quick end to their season, the
Bearcats were forced to watch the game slip painfully away in
overtime on two three-pointers -- both by Williams.
The first came from just in front of Smith, who shouted, ''Knock
it down!'' as Williams raised the ball above his head. (Eleven years
earlier Smith had barked a similar command before a spindly freshman
by the name of Jordan launched The Shot against Georgetown in the
NCAA title game.) Williams's second three-pointer came after a
delicate pirouette, but before he could square up to the basket. It
barely jarred the net.
While Williams was the hero of Carolina's 75-68 overtime victory,
Lynch was the star all weekend, earning MVP honors after scoring 44
points and pulling down 24 rebounds in the two games. The Heels' win
over the Bearcats gave Smith his ninth trip to the Final Four. Now
the Tar Heels would return to Chapel Hill to prepare for one final
week of basketball. They were going to New Orleans, and all that was
left was to see the Superdome scoreboard ablaze with the familiar
words on those black-and-white photographs.