North Carolina’s 1989-90 campaign was a disappointment...until it wasn’t. The Tar Heels had made nine consecutive trips to the Sweet Sixteen coming into the season. They were ranked #7 in the Preseason AP Poll and, in Scott Williams, Rick Fox, King Rice, Kevin Madden, and Pete Chilcutt, had an experienced core of players that was joined by promising newcomers George Lynch and Henrik Rodl. Dean Smith’s team were expected to contend come tournament time.
But the Tar Heels struggled out of the gate, losing four of their first eight games, and by Christmas they were out of the rankings. They never really got back on track: They finished 19-11 in the regular season (8-6 in the ACC) and dropped their ACC Tournament opener. The lone bright spot in their regular season: they administered two surprising beatdowns of a top-5 Duke team, both in Chapel Hill and Cameron. But despite that, they were ranked 41st overall at season’s end and were given the 8th seed in the NCAA Tournament, their lowest ever ranking up to that point.
To make matters worse, they were sent to open their tournament in Austin, where the top overall seed Oklahoma Sooners awaited in the second round. Billy Tubbs’ squad was led by Skeeter Henry and Williams Davis, but they were a deep and talented bunch, with six players averaging double figure scoring and tallying 101.3 ppg. Their point differential was the best in Division I by a wide margin. Though they made short work of Missouri State, no one gave the wildly inconsistent Heels much of a chance and it was expected that their Sweet Sixteen streak was doomed.
Carolina found a lot of joy early on attacking the Sooners inside, while the Sooners missed 9 of their first 13 shots. UNC’s lead swelled to 10 before the Sooners began to claw back into the game and a terrific back and forth battle in the first half ended with the Heels leading 40-38. UNC’s biggest concern was the foul trouble of their captain Scott Williams, who had picked up two early on.
The second half was largely deadlocked as well until right at the under 12 minute mark, when Oklahoma’s Tony Martin was whistled for a technical for elbowing George lynch after the whistle. King Rice, normally a reliable free throw shooter, bricked both shots but the Heels went on a 10-2 run immediately after, opening up some space ahead of the nation’s top team, 64-55. UNC’s inside attack was opening up the perimeter for its shooters, specifically Rick Fox, who was doing the bulk of the damage from behind the arc.
At the 8 minute mark, however, adversity struck: Scott Williams, the team’s anchor on the interior, picked up his fifth foul on an ill-advised rebound attempt. Forced to play a smaller lineup, Dean reverted to his old friend the Four Corners (there was a 45-second shot clock in 1990) to spread out the longer Sooners and shorten the game. Maybe it was the altered pace of the game, maybe it was the sight of their leader despondent on the bench, but Carolina started missing open looks and the Sooners started hitting them. William Davis, their start pivotman, began to dominate inside and things were bound for a photo finish.
Two free throws by Davis with 1:35 to go put OU up 74-73. UNC burned the entirety of their shot clock, trying unsuccessfully to find an opening, before Rick Fox drilled a contested three (his fifth of the game) to put UNC up with 53 seconds left. But Davis answered on the other end with an and-one to tie and then take the lead, 77-76.
UNC looked to answer but, just like on the previous possession, couldn’t shake the Sooner defense. With ten seconds on the clock, and the Sooners pressing to try and get a turnover, Dean Smith frantically began to signal for a timeout. But before he could get one, Pete Chilcutt lobbed a floating pass towards King Rice, that was nearly intercepted by Smoke McCovery. But he got arm and not ball and Rice was headed to the line.
Rice made the front end of the one-and-one to tie it, but missed the second. Both teams scrambled for the loose ball before a Sooner knocked it out of bounds. It was the best thing that could have happened: Had he made it, the Sooners would have been trailing by one and had ten seconds to go down and win it. Instead, it was a tie game and UNC had 8 seconds for the last shot:
And just like that, the dominant Sooners were out and the unlikely Tar Heels were moving on in a finish for the ages. Fox finished with 23 points (5-7 from three) Chilcutt, called on as the long big man much of the game, tallied 17 and 5. Rice, free throw shooting aside, played a strong floor game and ended up with 12 and 7 assists. Kevin Madden finished with 14 points on just 4 shots from the field, all makes. UNC went 7-10 from three and 29-54 overall.
Said Dean after the game; “I told you, I was happy with ‘em all year.”