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The 25 Greatest Games in UNC Basketball History: #4 - The 1993 National Title Game

A classic championship game featuring one of the iconic moments in college basketball history

There’s no place like New Orleans for some good old fashioned voodoo. And for the second time in the Big Easy, Dean Smith’s blessing was his opponents' curse. The same situation, the same end of the court, the same result. As Jim Nantz told Deano in the postgame interview, “This is your town now.”

The 1993 Tar Heels came to New Orleans with a score to settle. Several scores, in fact. Since Dean and Co. had cut down the nets in New Orleans in 1982 (stay tuned for THAT game), the Tar Heels had fielded some brilliant teams, but not another champion. Despite having rostered some brilliantly talented players like Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith, and JR Reid, they did not make another Final Four until 1991, and that one ended in disaster.

The night of the 1991 National Semifinals might just be the worst night in Carolina basketball history. It started with a friendly matchup between Dean and his disciple Roy Williams. The Tar Heels were favored over Roy’s Jayhawks, but a subpar offensive outing, particularly from a 5 for 25 Rick Fox, doomed them. That and Pete Pavia issuing Dean his second technical foul for asking him how much time he had to make a substitution. The Tar Heel faithful contented themselves with the knowledge that at least Duke was going home as well: They were facing undefeated UNLV who had smashed them by 30 in the finals the year previous. But when Duke pulled off the 79-77 shocker the nightmare was complete.

Duke finished the job two nights later, beating Kansas to take their first national title. They repeated as champions the following year with their (in)famous 1992 squad. The Tar Heels, once the kings of Tobacco Road, now had to live in a world where the Blue Devils were two-time defending champions, had been to five straight Final Fours, and had become the premier program in the state of North Carolina. The 1993 Tar Heels brought an end to all that.

The core of the 92-93 squad was made up of the vaunted class of 1990, who had come to Carolina as the #1 overall recruiting class. Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese, and Pat Sullivan were all juniors now (Clifford Rozier was lost to transfer) and made up three of UNC’s starters (Sullivan came off the bench). Joining them in the starting lineup was sophomore shooting guard Donald Williams, who came into the tournament on fire, and senior power forward George Lynch, a ferocious rebounder/defender and the team’s fearless captain.

The Tar Heels clinched the ACC Regular season title with a dominant win over Duke in Chapel Hill (“Na na na na...” chanted the Senior Night crowd), and they grabbed the #1 seed in the East heading into the NCAA tournament. They survived an overtime thriller against Cincinnati to reach one of most loaded Final Fours ever. Facing the Tar Heels in the Semis once again were Roy’s Jayhawks. But despite the quality of the teams and the Master vs. Apprentice Rematch factor, it was still the 2nd most hyped game that night. That’s because the second matchup was between Rick Pitino’s red-hot Kentucky Wildcats and Michigan’s Fab Five who, like the Tar Heels, had unfinished business.

I won’t burden you with an extended bit about the Fab Five because, frankly, that horse has been beaten to a pulpy death by a 30 for 30, an extended media debate, and Jalen Rose and Chris Webber’s ongoing will they/won’t they feud. Suffice to say that they were supremely talented, brash, and entertaining. They also had been humiliated by Duke in the final the previous year and had been criticized for underachieving through much of their anticipated 1993 season. But they answered all the naysayers when they outlasted Kentucky in overtime to return to the final. And when UNC dispatched Kansas behind Montross and Williams the stage was set.

UNC and Michigan had already met that season in Honolulu for the Rainbow Classic. It came right down to the end with Jalen Rose scoring a game-winning putback at the buzzer. Michigan won 79-78 on a night where Webber and Rose both had their way with the Carolina defense. When asked about the facing the Wolverines again, Dean Smith remarked that he would rather have a rematch with a team he had lost to than a team he had beaten.

Before the final, the Wolverines took the floor true to their confident form: Chris Webber charged onto the court for warmups, pointed at the Tar Heels, and bellowed “Y’all are gonna lose this game!”

He was mistaken. And not for the last time that night.

Carolina came out aggressively from the tip, attacking off the dribble and jumping Michigan with backcuts and lobs. They led 9-4 early before Michigan regained their composure. Behind Webber’s terrific interior offense and the shooting of backup Rob Pelinka (currently fabricating tales as GM of the Los Angeles Lakers), Michigan seized control and took a 23-13 lead at the under 12 timeout.

But UNC didn’t bend and Dean Smith made a critical move: Tired of seeing Webber pound his bigs inside, he switched to a 2-3 zone to force Michigan to break them down in the halfcourt with a more patient offense. It worked: Michigan turned it over several times and lost momentum. Donald Williams’ timely shooting brought the Heels level at 25 and a couple runs by both teams brought us to halftime with Carolina leading 42-36.

Besides Williams’ shooting, Montross was attracting a lot of attention in the paint, with Webber frequently doubling down to aid his fellow big Juwan Howard, and Lynch was his usual disruptive self on the defensive end. For Michigan, Jimmy King had gotten some good looks against the zone and Webber had still managed to occasionally find some soft spots on the inside to set up in.

Early in the second half, Phelps and Lynch (Carolina’s two best defenders) made a play that didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, but proved to be vital: Phelps had just been called for a travel and Juwan Howard was about to inbound the ball to Jalen Rose under the hoop. But Phelps and Lynch pressed and trapped Rose, taking him and Howard by surprise and forcing them to burn a timeout. Spoiler: That lost timeout would have come in handy later.

The two squads went back and forth in the second half, the referees allowing them to play physical ball and largely swallowing their whistles. UNC played well but, despite using 11 different players in the game, were gassed coming down the stretch, and Michigan was beginning to take control. On top of that, the Wolverines had won a series of close games, four of their last eight having gone to overtime, and weren’t afraid of late game pressure.

With 6:30 left in the game, Dean Smith called time and would make one of his boldest gambles as a head coach: When the teams came out of the timeout, UNC’s five players were Eric Montross, Henrik Rodl, Pat Sullivan, Scott Cherry, and Kevin Salvadori. A starting center and four backups. Smith was sacrificing offense to give his other four starters a blow before the final stretch. Michigan took advantage but not by much: They had led by one when the lineup took the floor, and when Donald WIlliams was inserted at the 4:30 mark, they only led by four, 65-61. Williams and Jimmy King traded jumpers to make it 67-63 Wolverines, then Dean’s gamble paid off: The Tar Heels scored the next nine points of the game to seize control.

First, Williams nailed a three (his fifth of the game) to cut the Michigan lead to one. Then, after a Lynch block, Phelps made a layup in the lane that seemed to hang on the rim for an eternity before finally dropping through to give UNC the lead. With under 2 minutes remaining, Lynch dove in from the right wing to drop in a jump shot that made it 70-67. Michigan had not committed enough fouls for the bonus, so Steve Fisher had his team go for steals and foul. After a number of play stoppages, Lynch hit Montross on a slip and he dunked it home with a minute remaining to give UNC a 72-67 lead.

A weaker team than Michigan would have folded, but the Wolverines had been pulling games out of the fryer all season, especially in the last few weeks. Ray Jackson hit a long two pointer to cut it to 72-69 and Michigan called timeout...its last time out. On the ensuing play, the Wolverines pressed in the backcourt and Brian Reese inadvertently stepped over the sideline. Michigan ball. Rose barely missed a game-tying three (“Got it! sure looked good...” said Wake Forest alum Billy Packer) and Webber got the board and stuck it back in. 72-71.

Pat Sullivan got the ball and was fouled with 20 seconds left in the game and UNC now in the double bonus. The junior sank the first free throw, but missed the second, Webber skying for the board. As he turned upcourt, for a moment, just a moment, he signaled for a timeout but thought better of it. He then looked to outlet it to Jalen Rose but George Lynch cut him off. Webber, his momentum carrying him forward, took a step, traveled, then dribbled the ball. And it wasn’t called.

Every player and coach on the Carolina bench leapt into the air, frantically signaling to the referee, who ignored them. Sitting by the scores table waiting to sub in, Eric Montross fell flat on his back in disbelief. Everyone, including Webber seemed to have forgot themselves. Everyone, that is, except George Lynch and Derrick Phelps.

With his point guard cut off from him, Webber galloped upcourt with the ball. Phelps left Rose and he and Lynch hounded Webber all the way up the sideline. Unable to find a teammate to dump it off to, Webber headed for the corner. Once he reached it, he picked up his dribble, pivoted to the nearest ref...and called timeout.

”I probably was a little slow,” Dean said after the game, regarding his reaction to Webber’s timeout. ”I remembered they had no timeouts.”

So did Woody Durham: “He takes a timeout, they’re out of timeouts! Technical foul! Technical foul on Michigan! They’re out of timeouts!”

So did the entire Carolina bench, which erupted in celebration. A personal favorite of mine is big Matt Wenstrom’s reaction; Watch the tape, he goes absolutely berserk. Two shots and possession of the ball. It was ballgame: Donald Williams would be headed to the line and with the roll he was on, you could bet your house on it. He nailed both free throws, then received the inbounds pass, was fouled again, and hit two more. 77-71. Rose’s last second jumper bounced off and UNC were champions again.

After the game, Webber took full responsibility: ”I called a timeout when we didn’t have one. And it probably cost our team the game.” It was a mature response but, like his prediction during warmups, he was mistaken: The timeout didn’t cost them the game, it sealed the game. Consider the situation: UNC was leading by two with 11 seconds left and Michigan’s ball handler was their big man, trapped in the corner. And, in case you hadn’t picked up on it...they had no timeouts. Run that scenario 100 times and UNC wins 99 of them. Webber didn’t take a timeout because he was a careless or low-IQ player. Indeed, along with his immense talent, he was one of the more cerebral players in college basketball.

Chris Webber took the timeout because Derrick Phelps and George Lynch forced him to. When he got that rebound of the Sullivan miss, his first move should have been to pass to his guard; they didn’t let him. When you’re being trapped in the open court, you’re supposed to avoid the corners; they didn’t let him. When you’re being trapped, you’re supposed to keep your dribble alive; they didn’t let him. They took away everything he was supposed to he did something he wasn’t supposed to.

Donald Williams finished with 25 points and was 5-7 from three, just like he had been against Kansas two nights earlier. He was named Tournament MVP. Eric Montross added 16 points and 5 rebounds, while George Lynch had 12 and 10. Webber led the Wolverines with 23 and 11, while Jimmy King added 16 points, 6 boards, and 4 assists. The hero of the first matchup Jalen Rose had an off night, committing 6 turnovers to just 4 assists against the Carolina defense.

With the win, Dean Smith had #2, UNC had #3, and all the family business had been settled: Duke was dethroned (thanks, Jason Kidd) and their crown headed eight miles up the road, Kansas had been paid back for ‘91 (sorry, Roy), and the early-season loss to the Wolverines had been avenged in epic and historic fashion. Not a bad weekend in the Big Easy.