Here we go! N.C. State, North Carolina a win away from showdown for Final Four spot

N.C. State, North Carolina a win away from showdown for Final Four spot

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comMarch 22, 2012 

North Carolina and N.C. State first played basketball against each other 99 years ago. But they are two days and one victory apiece away from lifting their rivalry to a place it has never been – the NCAA tournament.

Both schools will play tonight in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 in St. Louis. If North Carolina can beat Ohio at 7:47 p.m. and N.C. State can beat Kansas at 10:17 p.m., the teams will play Sunday in the regional final with a Final Four berth at stake.

That game – if it occurs – would re-energize a rivalry that has taken a backseat to the Duke-UNC rivalry for decades thanks to Carolina’s recent dominance of N.C. State. The Tar Heels have beaten N.C. State 13 straight times – their longest winning streak ever in the series. Coach Roy Williams is 19-1 as the Tar Heels coach against N.C. State, including three wins this season.

But as N.C. State has blossomed during the past few weeks, you can see signs of this intense rivalry sprouting again.

For instance: Joan Sloan, the widow of former N.C. State coach Norm Sloan, has made a wager about Kendall Marshall’s fractured wrist with a big Tar Heels fan who lives at her same Raleigh retirement community.

“I bet him $1 that Kendall Marshall will play” today against Ohio, Sloan said. “I get the dollar if Marshall plays. I just think that’s the way Williams is, and that’s the way the Tar Heels are. I think they know Marshall will play, but they don’t want anyone else to know.”

State’s re-emergence under new coach Mark Gottfried has been greeted with applause from some longtime Tar Heels. “When somebody is down, there’s no real fun in beating a team by 20 points over and over,” said Lennie Rosenbluth, the star of the Tar Heels’ 1957 national championship team. “This is a lot more fun.”

And former N.C. State players can hardly contain themselves.

“I always wear my State stuff anyway, but I’m wearing it with a lot more pride now,” said David Thompson, the star forward for the 1974 N.C. State national championship team who now lives in Charlotte. “This is the way it should be – State should be on the same level as Carolina. It’s just been so long since we’ve been here.”

“That would be the most important game of the rivalry ever,” said Tom Burleson, the center for that 1974 team, fantasizing about a possible Sunday matchup. “And if we put Carolina out of the race for the national championship and went to the Final Four while doing it? I can’t tell you how good a feeling that would be.”

Said Chris Corchiani, the former N.C. State standout point guard:

“I get chills just thinking about what might happen Sunday. It would confirm the rivalry is back. We N.C. State fans would like to say it has existed all along, but that really hasn’t been the case because we haven’t been relevant. Now we may have a unique opportunity to not only catch but to surpass our neighbors.”

‘It used to be State, Carolina’

While North Carolina’s annual battles with Duke have been the one to generate more breathless live coverage, books and even an HBO documentary over the past 20 years, the Tar Heels and N.C. State once were locked into the same sort of rough embrace.

“People forget how good State used to be,” said Thompson, who was a huge part of N.C. State’s nine-game winning streak in the series from 1972 to ‘75. “It used to be State and Carolina – we were right there together, on equal terms. You talk to young kids now and they don’t put State in that same category.”

The Carolina-State rivalry has ebbed and flowed for decades. It has long been portrayed as an “agriculture vs. culture” clash, owing to N.C. State’s farming roots and North Carolina’s liberal arts lean. With the campuses only a half-hour drive away, it is inevitable that fans and alumni of both programs bump into each other everywhere.

“I’m hearing it a lot from State fans now,” said David Chadwick, a prominent pastor in Charlotte who played for North Carolina from 1969 to ‘71. “They are crowing a little bit, saying things like, ‘We really want you in the Elite Eight’ – and I think they really want us without Kendall Marshall. They have all the momentum. They feel like they got jobbed in the ACC tournament against the officials – and maybe they did – and they would just love to beat Carolina.”

It has been that way for decades. From 1940 to ‘46, UNC’s “White Phantoms” beat N.C. State’s “Red Terrors” 13 out of 15 times.

“That’s what started it all,” said Lou Pucillo, the ACC Player of the Year in 1959 for N.C. State. “State got tired of getting beaten by Carolina, and it hired Everett Case.”

Case was an innovator, a motivator and ahead of his time in many respects. He once had been the best high school coach in Indiana, and he recruited almost exclusively from that state in the early days. Norm Sloan was part of his first team, in 1946-47, which edged the Tar Heels by two points in Chapel Hill.

For the regular-season game later that same season in Raleigh at the old Thompson Gym, students stormed the doors well before the game, filling the gym past capacity. The game had to be canceled by the Raleigh fire marshal.

Case brought a number of traditions to the game in North Carolina, including an idea he borrowed from Indiana high school basketball – cutting down the nets after winning a championship. His teams started practicing that one a lot, as they dominated the ACC and once beat the Tar Heels 21 of 22 times during a seven-year stretch.

“That’s the primary reason Frank McGuire got hired at UNC,” Rosenbluth said. “State had just about made a laughingstock out of Carolina at that point.”

It could have gone on longer if Rosenbluth – the eventual national player of the year over Wilt Chamberlain in 1957 – had gone to N.C. State. Case had offered the New York high school player a scholarship, Rosenbluth said, and then had Rosenbluth down to Raleigh in 1952 to visit the campus.

While there, Case asked Rosenbluth to work out with some other players. Rosenbluth – out of shape and wearing unfamiliar basketball shoes that blistered his feet – was “terrible,” he said. He hadn’t been prepared for what turned out to be a tryout.

Case told Rosenbluth at the end of the visit he couldn’t give him a scholarship after all. McGuire happily did so instead.

“But maybe if I had gone to State I would have never played much,” Rosenbluth said. “So it all came out fine.”

The programs interweave in many ways. Many years later, Rosenbluth would coach a young point guard in the Miami area who Rosenbluth thought would be a great fit at North Carolina.

“But once he met Jim Valvano, it was over,” Rosenbluth said. “Valvano was a lot like McGuire – similar personalities, great salesmen – and so even though I didn’t like his decision, I could understand why.”

That point guard was Chris Corchiani.

The wolf would howl

David Thompson, the youngest of 11 children growing up poor in Shelby, N.C., had a 44-inch vertical leap and the power to change the rivalry’s course. He narrowed his college choice to two in the early 1970s – State and Carolina – before picking State and becoming arguably the greatest player in ACC history.

“That always made it a little more intense for me,” Thompson said. “I really wanted to beat Carolina. And we did. Of course, we beat pretty much everyone, but the games that gave us the most satisfaction were when we beat Carolina.”

Burleson – who also was recruited hard by UNC but picked the Wolfpack – felt the same way. He still remembers a State-Carolina game at Reynolds in 1972 when he noticed a few State fans waving behind the glass while UNC’s George Karl attempted two tree throws.

Burleson was on the bench, having fouled out. But he rose up and waved his arms wildly, trying to incite the fans.

“That was the night that the distraction of fans waving behind the boards really began,” Burleson said. “I helped get that going.”

Karl missed both free throws and N.C. State eventually won. As Burleson remembers, UNC coach Dean Smith called Burleson’s act “the worst sportsmanship in the world.”

State played Carolina four times in 1975, during Thompson’s senior season. The teams used to play three or even four times a season with some regularity. That happened first because of the Dixie Classic – a wildly successful Christmastime tournament masterminded by Case until it was undone by a gambling scandal.

“My dad used to take me to that tournament,” said Bobby Jones, who grew up in Charlotte and later would star for UNC in the early 1970s. “It was awe-inspiring.”

Then came the Big Four tournament in Greensboro, which was held before the ACC’s double round-robin regular season (now a thing of the past as well).

Phil Ford was a freshman on the team that knocked Thompson’s squad out of the 1975 ACC tournament.

“When I was playing, N.C. State was the No. 1 rivalry for us,” Ford said. “It was so hard to play in Reynolds Coliseum. That wolf would start howling and that noise meter would start lighting up and it was just so loud.”

Valvano’s first win

In 1982 and ’83, the rivalry reached another peak. North Carolina won the national championship in 1982 – Smith’s first title – while beating N.C. State three times that season.

In 1982-83, Jim Valvano’s third season as the Wolfpack’s coach, he had yet to defeat North Carolina and Smith. He had laughed this off in public, but it bothered him.

On Feb.19, 1983, that changed. The Wolfpack won 70-63 at Reynolds Coliseum against a North Carolina team led by Michael Jordan. Smith got two technicals. Jordan fouled out on a controversial charging call that rankled Smith and assistant coach Roy Williams – both told unofficial N.C. State basketball historian Tim Peeler decades later that the call was dead wrong.

State fans went crazy, celebrating for hours. And State’s players cut down the nets – the old Case tradition, resurrected for a regular-season game.

“This is something we needed, the schools needed, the students needed,” Valvano said during his postgame news conference.

The Wolfpack learned that day it had enough talent to beat anyone. Six weeks later, State and Valvano would win the national championship over Houston.

That year – 1983 – also was one of the two times the rivals came close to playing in the NCAA tournament. North Carolina was upset by Georgia in the Elite Eight – if not, the Tar Heels and Wolfpack would have played in the Final Four. In 2005, Carolina and State reached the Sweet 16 – just like this season. State lost to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, however, and UNC won the national title.

“We’re just tickled to death”

Since the glory days of Valvano, however, the rivalry has become increasingly one-sided. And it will be played less often soon – only UNC and Duke are guaranteed to play twice a year in the regular season once the next wave of ACC expansion kicks in.

The ACC is preserving that rivalry at the expense of UNC-N.C. State. Those teams will play twice some seasons and once in others when Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the league.

Although a disappointing decision to many, it wasn’t terribly shocking. Said Ford: “By the time I started coaching at Carolina (in 1988), Duke and UNC had evolved into the rivalry for us.”

Said Burleson: “We’ve not been on the national level in 25 years.”

Through the years of coaches Les Robinson, Herb Sendek and Sidney Lowe, N.C. State has rarely beaten North Carolina. The Tar Heels not only have won 13 in a row in the series, but they also have won 37 of the past 45 meetings.

State generally has not had much basketball success lately. This is the team’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006.

“We’re just tickled to death,” Burleson said. “I went to the Maryland game earlier this year and I just loved the way coach Gottfried used his timeouts. It looked like we were going to implode, like we’ve done so often in the past few years, but it was really just magical the way he kept it on track. So all this is such a wonderful feeling – to finally feel like State is getting some respect again.”

While the Tar Heels were supposed to get this far and beyond, the Wolfpack’s Sweet 16 appearance has stunned even those close to the team like Corchiani. The former point guard and his teammate Tom Gugliotta were famously thrown out of a State home game against Florida State this season by official Karl Hess.

“That changed my life a little – I’m recognized now as the guy who got tossed out, not the former player,” laughed Corchiani, who is traveling to St. Louis to watch tonight’s games. “It was a surprise. But this State success? It’s been a far bigger surprise. With three McDonald’s All-Americans coming in, I knew the future was bright. I didn’t know the present was bright.”

Will you cheer for the other team?

Former UNC players Ford, Jones, Chadwick and Rosenbluth all said they hope N.C. State wins tonight, even if the Tar Heels are upset by Ohio in the first game of the evening in St. Louis.

“I want State to have some success – just as long as it doesn’t interfere with our success,” Jones said.

“It’s terrific the rivalry is bubbling again,” Chadwick said.

And some former State players agree. “I want them both to win on Friday and play on Sunday,” Pucillo said.

As for David Thompson?

He will watch from a Charlotte restaurant with some State friends and is ambivalent about the first game’s outcome.

“Carolina’s OK,” Thompson said. “I had a niece that went there.” (That niece was Charlotte Smith, the former North Carolina women’s basketball player who hit the winning three-pointer in 1994 when UNC won the national championship.)

“Look, I don’t care if the Tar Heels win – but I wouldn’t mind if they lost,” Thompson said. “They win all the time.”

There will be no ambiguity, however, for Joan (pronounced Joanne) Sloan. The widow of Norm Sloan will watch the two games tonight by herself at her home.

“No one else can stand me watching a game with them at home since I get so nervous,” she said.

What would her late husband say about State’s current run?

“Oh, he’d be sure State is going to win the whole thing,” Sloan said. “As I recall – and he would recall, too – we used to beat Carolina more than they beat us. Duke, too. Those were good times.”

Joan Sloan sang the national anthem for years before every N.C. State home game her husband coached. She still goes to most Wolfpack home games. At her own home, however, she has a hard time keeping still.

“When the game is tight, I walk away,” she said. “I go clean a closet or a drawer or something. Then I walk back for a minute and see how it’s going. I get too nervous.”

Sloan wants two outcomes tonight – a State win and a Carolina loss. She doesn’t want the dream Elite Eight matchup, because she doesn’t want Carolina to get to Sunday.

“I never pull for Carolina, don’t you know that? I just can’t,” she said. “But if these games are close, I don’t know what I’m going to do. All of the closets are already clean from last weekend.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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