Up through the 1970s, the archrivals of the North Carolina Tar Heels were the NC State Wolfpack. From the mid-1980s onward, it has been the Duke Blue Devils. But for a brief three-year period, from 1981 to 1983, the team that North Carolina had marked on their calendar was the Virginia Cavaliers. Not because of proximity or any intense feelings of hatred, but rather the mutual excellence of the two programs, both of whom were among the most dominant teams not only in the ACC, but in the country.
The arrival of Ralph Sampson in Charlottesville instantly transformed the Wahoos into a national powerhouse. In his freshman year, Sampson averaged 4.6 blocks per game. That was his DOWN year: The next three seasons he was named National Player of the Year. Even more than David Thompson and Phil Ford before him, Sampson became the face of college basketball. At 7’4, he quite literally towered over everyone.
The Cavaliers and Tar Heels met in the 1981 Final Four, with the Tar Heels emerging victorious thanks to a brilliant performance from Al Wood. The following season, the teams would split their regular season meetings and square off in the ACC Tournament as the #1 and #2 teams in the country. UNC eked out a 47-45 victory in which the Tar Heels ran the Four Corners for 9 minutes to kill off the game, to the fury of fans throughout the nation who at this point were sick to death of Dean Smith’s stalling tactics.
In response, several conferences, including the ACC, experimented with a shot clock and a three-point game to speed up the game. The shot clock was 30 seconds but would not be used in the closing four minutes of the game. The 1982 ACC Tournament had major reverberations for that season as well: By winning, the Tar Heels secured the East Regional and top overall seed, which they would ride to the Final Four in New Orleans (we know what happened there). Meanwhile, Virginia got the South Regional and opened their tournament in Birmingham, where they were upset by...Alabama-Birmingham, a low-seed team playing on its home court.
The 1983 season began with the Cavaliers ranked #1 overall. The Terry Holland-coached squad were led by Sampson, future NBA coach Rick Carlisle, Othell Wilson, and Craig Robinson. Defending champion UNC started out ranked #15, having lost James Worthy and Jimmy Black, but they still had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, Jim Braddock, and added freshman center Brad Daugherty.
The Tar Heels came on strong late in non-conference and into ACC play, running off 17 straight wins, one of which was an upset of UVA in Charlottesville 101-95. Sampson was tasked with guarding Daugherty, which left Sam Perkins free to wreak havoc on the Virginia defense, scoring a career high 36 points. One month later, the two teams were set for a rematch in Chapel Hill, with UNC ranked #1 in the country and UVA ranked #2.
Terry Holland’s team learned from their mistakes in the first matchup and this time Sampson was put on Perkins, who had a much less effective game, bothered by Sampson’s length. The Cavalier defense also keyed on Jordan, who had a terrible start to the game, managing just four points by halftime. Virginia’s packed in defense also kept UNC out of the paint. This continued in the second half, when the Cavaliers stretched their lead into double digits. After Sampson hit a turnaround jumper from the baseline with 8:43 left in the game, Virginia held a 58-42 lead.
Then Dean Smith worked a bit of his magic. So often known for his complex strategies (or what John Wooden called “overcoaching”), Dean could also master simplicity, particularly when motivating his players. In the huddle, with defeat staring them in the face, Smith simply smiled and said “Wouldn’t it be something to come back and win this thing?”
Thus spoke the Dean and thus it was: That turnaround jumper by Sampson was his last basket of the game. Othell Wilson, normally a sure-handed floor leader, turned it over three times in the closing minutes. The 30-second clock, designed to suppress Dean’s strategies, actually worked in UNC’s favor: The Cavaliers couldn’t hold the ball to run out the game. The three point line helped as well: The Tar Heels, so often given the red light from their coach on taking outside jumpers, nailed five threes in the second half.
With a minute and a half left, Virginia held a 63-60 lead. But now, since they were under four minutes, they could stall. The Tar Heels pressed and eventually were whistled for a foul on Sampson, sending him to the line. He missed the front end of the one-and-one and UNC raced upcourt. Jim Braddock fired up a three to tie, but it rattled off before Jordan tipped it in. 63-62 UVA, 1:00 left.
The Tar Heels pressed once again, Jordan (who was playing with four fouls) flying around in the backcourt. Rick Carlisle got the ball and tried to dribble out of the trap but made the mistake of switching his dribble to his left hand, with his back turned to Jordan:
Jordan’s steal and dunk gave UNC a 64-63 lead with 48 seconds left. The Cavaliers brought the ball upcourt to find the Tar Heels back in a zone defense, which they had abandoned earlier in order to make the comeback. The Cavaliers couldn’t find a way inside to Sampson and called time. After the timeout they still had nothing: Carlisle was forced to fire up a three with five seconds left, but it bounced off. Jordan corralled the rebound and time expired, to the joy of Carmichael Auditorium and the devastation of Virginia (one UVA assistant was so upset that he hurled the game ball through the air in disgust).
Jordan finished with a game-high 16 points, despite his slow start, and Jim Braddock had 14. Perkins was held to just 10 by Sampson, who finished with 15 and 12, though his disappearing act in the final minutes was glaring. This would be the last time Sampson would face the Tar Heels, who completed the season sweep of Virginia in historic fashion. The Cavaliers, sans Sampson, would make a surprising trip to the Final Four the following season, but it wasn’t until this year’s championship run that they would return again.
Though it was brief, the UNC-Virginia rivalry of the early 80s was as good of a three-year run any two teams have had against each other: It featured a Final Four meeting, an ACC Championship game, three #1 vs. #2 matchups, and an all-time comeback capped by the greatest player of all time. Not bad for a “football rivalry.”