With apologies to Marcus Paige and Ed Cota (the Cota Floata!), this following game was the Heels' most memorable finish ever over N.C. State.
The 1970s were the height of the Tar Heel-Wolfpack basketball rivalry. In the first half of the decade, David Thompson, arguably the greatest player in ACC history, led the Pack to an incredible 57-1 record over a two year period, culminating in the 1974 National Championship. In 1975 the Tar Heels, led by freshman Phil Ford, arguably the greatest collegiate Tar Heel ever, upset them in the ACC Tournament and seized control of the rivalry. But by 1979, Ford was gone.
Not that the Tar Heels suffered much without him: Led on offense by sophomore Al Wood and junior Mike O’Koren and on defense by “The Secretary of Defense” Dudley Bradley, the Tar Heels came into Reynolds Coliseum 12-2 and ranked #2 in the country, having just knocked off #10 Arkansas. The Wolfpack, meanwhile, had lost their previous two games and had dropped to #14 in the rankings. Norm Sloan’s team was led by Hawkeye Whitney and Clyde Austin.
The Tar Heels jumped out to a 40-19 halftime lead and the matchup looked like a laugher at intermission. But the Wolfpack came storming out of the gates in the second period and drew closer and closer. Dean Smith, as was his wont in those days, had his team turn to the Four Corners to run the clock out (remember, young ‘uns, there was no shot clock in 1979).
There was just one problem: The Tar Heels no longer had Phil Ford, the master of the Four Corners. The Wolfpack aggressively pursued the UNC ballhandlers and forced them out of the corners, continuing the chip away at the lead. When O’Koren went down with an ankle injury, the stall game suffered even more. Smith was forced to insert freshman point guard Jimmy Black into the lineup to cover for his sure-handed veteran.
By the final minute, the Wolfpack had cut the lead to just three, behind the shooting of Whitney and Kenny Matthews. With 43 seconds remaining, Whitney was at the line with two shots, hoping to cut it to a one possession game (no 3-point line in 1979). That’s when things got crazy:
As Whitney’s first shot was taken, Jimmy Black and Kenny Matthews got tangled up and scuffled under the hoop. Referee Lenny Wirtz called a technical on Black, giving State an additional free throw AND the ball.
A quick word regarding Lenny Wirtz: Think for a moment about how you feel about Ted Valentine. Specifically when he turned his back on Joel Berry in 2018. That’s how ACC fans felt about Lenny Wirtz all the time. It being the late 1970s, opposing ACC fans would swear that Wirtz was a Dean Smith flunky who gave UNC all the calls. UNC fans would point to an incident where Dean told Wirtz that he had a worse record playing in games officiated by Wirtz than any other official; Lenny T’d him up in response.
In any case, Black’s technical opened the door for State: Whitney drilled both free throws, cutting the lead to one, then on the ensuing possession Matthews hit a long jumper to give State a 69-68 lead with just 30 seconds left to play. Carolina raced down the court and Dudley Bradley missed a long jumper of his own. State corralled the rebound with 15 seconds left as Reynolds Coliseum erupted in celebration of what appeared to be an historic comeback victory.
Clyde Austin got the ball and tried to run out the clock. Just as he crossed over half court, however, he turned his back on Bradley, who was racing after him. That was all the chance the Secretary of Defense needed:
For a clearer image, here’s the TV broadcast (if you can stomach the insufferable Bill Packer).
The Tar Heels would go on to knock off Duke in the 1979 ACC Tournament and earn a #1 seed, though they were upset in the first round. The Wolfpack, meanwhile, would tumble out of the rankings and finish the season 18-12. More than that, however, this game would start a long and storied run of frustration for the team from Raleigh (1983 excluded of course). Any time you hear a Wolfpack fan refer to “Typical State” or “NC State S**t” just remember that before the 1979, that really wasn’t a thing. Dudley Bradley’s steal was where it began.