If you don’t know, this week has been Underdog Week at SB Nation. We here at Tar Heel Blog have taken part, including articles on Luke Maye’s journey at UNC and the underappreciated Derrick Phelps.
However in general, North Carolina Tar Heels basketball doesn’t have a lot of underdog stories. They’ve won six national titles and have been an NCAA Tournament #1 seed 16 different times. They are one of the biggest and best programs in college basketball.
That’s not to say they’ve never been the underdog. To continue with the theme, let’s take a look back at two times a Tar Heel team has pulled off a big NCAA Tournament upset.
The 1989-90 UNC team started the season ranked #7 in the country. They had lost J.R. Reid, Jeff Lebo, and Steve Bucknall from the previous season, but otherwise returned three double digit scorers, including Rick Fox and Scott Williams, from a team that was a #2 seed in the ‘89 NCAA Tournament.
Despite winning their opening two games, the non-conference season quickly went downhill. They went into the new year with just an 8-5 record and unranked in the polls. An 8-6 ACC season, which featured wins over ranked Duke, NC State, and Georgia Tech teams, was enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament as an #8 seed.
A big second half allowed the Tar Heels to beat Southwest Missouri State by 13 in the first round, setting up a game against #1 seed Oklahoma.
Not only were the Sooners a #1 seed, they were the #1 team in the AP Poll going into the 1990 NCAA Tournament. They featured six double digit scorers, and averaged over 100 points per game as a team.
Despite all that, UNC had the advantage early, leading by as many as 10 early, and going into halftime with a lead. After a back and forth second half, Williams fouled out with 12 minutes to go. Dean Smith went to the fabled Four Corners offense, and the Tar Heels started to pull away.
However, Oklahoma was #1 for a reason, and they went on a run of their own, clawing their way back into the game. With 39 seconds left, the Sooners held a one-point lead. Down the other end, King Rice drew a foul, and made one of two free throw to tie the game. The miss came on the second free throw and in the ensuing tussle for the rebound, it went out off an Oklahoma player. That allowed time for Smith to draw up a play and for this to happen.
UNC fell in the next round to Arkansas, but they created a memorable moment before the left the tournament in 1990.
Ten years after that, UNC was again an #8 seed. In 1999-00, Bill Guthridge’s team spent most of the first half of the season ranked in the top ten. However, from January 12th on, they went 7-8, falling to the 8/9 matchup in the South Region.
Like they had in 1990, the Tar Heels won their first round comfortably thanks to a big second half. This time, they would face off against the #3 team in the country and a #1 seed in Stanford. They Cardinal had six future NBA players, and were led by freshman Casey Jacobson.
This one wouldn’t produce quite as memorable a moment, but it still ended in a UNC win. With the game tied at 47, a Joe Forte three gave the Tar Heels a lead they would never relinquish. UNC finished the game on a 13-6 run to advance to the Sweet 16.
The story of this win was Carolina’s defense. They held Jacobson to five points on 2-12 shooting. Stanford as a team went 6-22 from three.
Unlike 1990, UNC would follow up this upset win. They picked up another over #4 seed Tennessee and #7 seed Tulsa to complete a improbable Final Four run. They fell to Florida when they got there.
There’s not too many times that UNC can play the underdog card in NCAA Tournament games. However when they do, they’ve still proven to be a dangerous out.