After making their first ever NCAA Tournament in 1941, it took North Carolina a couple years to make it back. Bill Lange led them to that first tournament, and had a couple solid year in charge. However in 1944, Lange accepted the job as athletic director at Kenyon College in Ohio.
To replace him, UNC brought in Ben Carnevale. He was just 29 years old and had no prior coaching experience, but had a good playing career at NYU. He was coming off a stint serving in the Navy in World War II when he was tapped to be Carolina’s new coach.
His first season was an impressive one. Having to replace much of the production from the previous year’s team, he led UNC to a 22-6 record and a Southern Conference Tournament title. The ‘44-45 season was notable for the emergence of John Dillon, who would eventually become known as “Hook.”
Dillon and fellow star Jim Jordan were back for the next season, which soon turned into one to remember. Carnevale and his squad put up a 27-3 regular season record, winning the Southern Conference regular season title. They fell in the their second conference tournament game against Wake Forest, but their season was still enough to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
UNC were in the East Regional where they were matched up against Carnevale’s alma mater, NYU. Earlier in the season, the two teams had faced off in New York, where UNC came out with a two-point win. Dillon’s hook shot display in the game gained him his aforementioned nickname from the local New York City media.
The rematch was not quite as close, as UNC won by eight in Madison Square Garden. Dillon again impressed, leading all scorers with 15 points.
Considering that it was an eight-team tournament back then, that means it technically took UNC just one win to make their first ever Final Four. Obviously, it was not as much of a big deal or an impressive feat as it is now.
The run did not end there, however. Two days later, UNC took on Ohio State in the national semifinal. After trailing by one at halftime, Carolina took the game to overtime, where they came out with a three-point win. That would take the school to their first ever national championship game.
Waiting for them was defending champion Oklahoma A&M, the school now known as Oklahoma State. The Aggies, as they were then known, were led by coach Henry Iba and seven-foot center Bob Kurland.
Seven-foot tall players weren’t exactly the norm back then, so UNC had to rely on the six-six Bones McKinney to guard Kurland. That didn’t exactly work out. Kurland scored a game-high 23 points. Despite that, Carolina kept the game close. They were down by six at the half, but fought to he end, eventually falling by three points 43-40. Dillon was again the star, scoring 16 points in a losing effort.
After just two years in Chapel Hill, Carnevale left UNC to take the coaching job at Navy, which he held for 20 seasons. There would be some lean years after that, as Carolina did not make another NCAA Tournament until 1957, which coincidentally was also quite a notable appearance.
Wilner, Barry, and Ken Rappoport. The Big Dance: the Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Taylor Trade Pub., 2012.
Powell, Adam. University of North Carolina Basketball. Arcadia Pub., 2005.