We all have our first. Blessed as we are to follow UNC sports, if you’re reading this you have a “first title” that you remember. Somewhere, someone will look at last year the way you looked at 1982. Or 2005. That moment when Carolina won the title and that team is the one that will always stand out to you because it hit you at the perfect time.
For me, it was 1993.
Oh sure, 1957 had the perfect season and put Carolina Basketball on the map, 1982 was Dean’s first and had the GOAT, 2005 was Roy’s first, 2009 was Roy’s stamp, and 2017 was redemption. Each team that manages to survive the season and make through the minefield that is the NCAA Tournament is special.
1993, though, was unique. The shine of Dean’s ‘82 title had started to come off a little bit. The rest of the 80’s saw UNC always make at least the Sweet 16, but could never return to the final weekend of the tournament. An upstart over in Durham had become the hot name in the area thanks to his national titles. If social media had been around back then, there would be a lot of “this game has passed Dean by” talk that would have been out there.
In 1990, a freshman class would come in as one of Smith’s most heralded. Derrick Phelps, Eric Montross, Brian Reese, Pat Sullivan (Clifford Rozier transferred after ‘91) joined King Rice, Rick Fox, and Hubert Davis, to take Dean back to the Final Four in 1991. It was a great mix of talented experience with Freshmen depth that Dean was able to ride out to Indianapolis, where he ran smack dab into one of his former assistants.
It was tough to watch that game and see Roy seemingly pass by his mentor, and to see Dean have to leave early because of an official with a quick “T” call. It didn’t help to see that same Kansas team to lose to Duke a couple of nights later, which anointed K as the King of Hoops in the area. Prospects weren’t bright for the next year as an unheralded recruit named Donald Williams was the only one to join the team, while they lost a lot of leadership.
1992, though, gave fans a preview of what to expect out of the Tar Heels. In February, the rivalry that had reignited exploded on a national stage drew blood. The Duke team that was looking for revenge for their ACC Tournament loss couldn’t find it in Chapel Hill as a bloodied Montross helped lead Carolina to a two point win.
1993 dawned with a roster that wasn’t really full of stars. Phelps was a junior point guard who had Dean’s system down pat and had played with these same guys for three years. Montross was one of the most dominant centers in the country. Reese was a mercurial player who could pull off some spectacular plays. Williams was an unknown quantity. Sullivan was a bench player who’d give you great minutes when the tired signal went up. They were all joined by the senior George Lynch, the unquestioned leader of the team who made sure everyone did their jobs. The Final Four was returning to New Orleans, and Tar Heel fans liked their chances.
I got to see this team play at the beginning of the season in Charlotte thanks to my Mom. It was everything a middle school kid could love, a thorough beat down by your favorite team, a chance to see them in person, and even got some high fives as they left the court. A little later, the team would spend the holidays out in Hawaii at the Rainbow Classic. They would meet a team out there that was getting all of the headlines Duke wasn’t: Michigan.
I remember listening to the end of the game against the Wolverines and having my heart broken as Rose hit a rebound at the buzzer. I can’t remember how Woody described the event, but it was just devastating to process. Here was a chance to make a real mark against a team that everyone just assumed would take it all, and Carolina lost on a buzzer beater.
I never dreamed they would get another shot.
The ‘93 season also brought out the best comeback in modern Carolina history. On January 27th, Carolina was down 21 points to Florida State, fans reeling after guard Sam Cassell had called the Dean Dome a “wine and cheese” crowd. Somehow, someway, Carolina pulled all the way back to win. It set the tone that this team wasn’t going to give up. It also gave birth to my “game shirt” superstition, as I switched the t-shirt I was wearing during halftime, and was convinced the win was because I had put on a new one. That shirt was worn during every game after that, even during the losses, because I just knew something was special about it.
A freak injury to Phelps in the ACC Tournament prevented the Heels from taking another title, but their body of work was good enough to earn a top seed for the NCAA’s. As the tournament progressed, the hot coach on the block was knocked off in the second round, and the Heels survived a scare in the Regional Final to make it back to the Final Four.
I remember not feeling so friendly about Roy Williams the second time they met in ‘93. It was nice and all that he was having success in Kansas, but it was time for Dean to show he was still the best. The game was close, but Carolina ended up pulling it out in the end, and we all watched as Michigan eventually took down Rick Pitino and Kentucky to set up the Monday night game.
What a game.
Donald Williams earned his MOP, the Fab Five had met a team that was well coached and not intimidated by their talent, and right when you thought Carolina had salted it away, Michigan stormed back. It was the epitome of Carolina Basketball, even to the point where today’s equivalent of Blue Steel came into the game because every player had flashed the tired signal. Dean was not going to change just because it was a title game, and that freshness proved to be a key point.
To this day-I will always contend Weber may have messed up, but only because Carolina forced him to. Watch the final play-and you’ll see why he messed up. Weber gets the board and everyone runs down, covered by someone in blue. Lynch hangs back a little, and when Weber acts like he’s going to pass, Lynch jumps into that path, forcing Weber to dribble. Weber walks (oh how history would look at him differently had that been called), and while we were all screaming at the refs for missing that, he rushes up the court. Lynch changes gears and shadows him, as Phelps also sits in the way to catch a pass that Weber might try. Weber is forced to go into the corner, and Lynch and Phelps spring the trap. Weber called the timeout he thought he had.
What happens if he doesn’t call that timeout? Does he bounce it off a player and set up and inbounds pass? Carolina only had 3 team fouls, they could let Michigan inbound it, waste a few seconds, and reset. They could that three more times before Michigan had to shoot free throws. Does he get called for five seconds? Does a Carolina player force a jump ball? The chances that Weber was going to succeed there were low. Really, really low.
As Williams sank the free throws, I still remember Woody saying, barely containing himself, “the party is ready to begin on Franklin Street!” When the horn went off, we were ecstatic. I stayed up so late, even listening to the extended post game, just over the moon that this team had done it. During that news conference, Dean uttered the line that still sticks with me today “OK, call us lucky, but call us National Champions.”
I completely understand that on an overall talent level, 1993 may not rank as one of the top teams, but when you look at what happened to Carolina from that point forward it may be one of the most important. The fall of 1993 brought Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace to Chapel Hill. These were two bona fide future NBA players that many felt were going to stop coming to Carolina, and instead they went back to the Final Four in 1995. Jamison and Carter would soon follow before Dean made his exit. 1993 established that Carolina was far from done, setting up the next era of Carolina Basketball.
This team is getting the praise it deserves this season, and hopefully as time goes on they’ll be remembered less as the “team that got lucky” and more as “the team that showed just how good a coach Dean Smith was.” If you haven’t taken time to learn about them, use this chance to do so. If you are a fan of Carolina, you owe a lot to them, even if you didn’t know it.