1983 | Tar Heels had a chance to end the dream before it began – but missed

N.C. State never would have made it to the NCAAs without beating UNC in the ACC tournament

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 21, 2012 

NC State's Thurl Bailey baattles with UNC's Sam Perkins during a game in Chapel Hill, Jan. 20, 1983.

BOB BRIDGES — 1983 News & Observer photo

In the moments after, Matt Doherty told John Feinstein of the Washington Post that North Carolina believed it had enough time left – that the Tar Heels believed they would prevail.

“It was like any other game where we get behind,” Doherty told the Post then, in March of 1983, after the Tar Heels’ 91-84 overtime loss against N.C. State in the ACC tournament semifinals in Atlanta. “Coach [Dean] Smith just kept reminding us we had lots of time left.”

Until UNC ran out of time. Memories of some games fade away quickly, the results nothing more than forgotten numbers from a forgotten time. Others live on in those who experienced them – spectators, coaches, players.

The story of N.C. State’s improbable postseason run in 1983 has been told and told again. Books have been written. Documentaries produced.

There is another side to that story, though, about the teams that could have ended the Wolfpack’s run before it began. What do those teams, the ones that failed amid N.C. State’s magic, remember about becoming a footnote to history?

The Tar Heels were one of them.

Nearly 30 years later, Doherty during a phone interview relived that 1983 ACC tournament loss against N.C. State. Had three decades really come and gone? He had graduated from UNC, worked on Wall Street, coached four Division I college teams, including the Tar Heels, and started a broadcasting career.

Yet in a moment he was back in Atlanta.

“I’m trying to forget some of it,” Doherty said. “But some of it comes back.”

It isn’t all clear now. Doherty doesn’t remember the strategy the Wolfpack employed that day at the Omni, which has since been torn down. He doesn’t remember the details of how the Tar Heels lost their six-point overtime lead.

But he carries snapshots in his mind, accessible as a pile of Polaroids in an attic. All it takes is a desire to sift through them, and the stories come back.

N.C. State and North Carolina played nearly a month after meeting for the final time during the regular season. The teams split their regular-season games, with UNC winning 67-64 at Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill, and losing 70-63 at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.

“That game in Reynolds Coliseum, people talk about Cameron Indoor Stadium or Carmichael,” said Doherty, now a college basketball analyst for ESPNU. “There was no louder place – it may have been the loudest place I’ve ever played in in my life, was Reynolds Coliseum.”

After that loss in Reynolds, UNC won five consecutive games, all by double digits. The last was a 105-79 rout of Clemson in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. The Heels had entered the ACC tournament as the co-favorite, along with Virginia.

Though UNC had defeated Virginia twice, the teams appeared headed for another meeting in the ACC tournament championship game. It would have been a much-hyped game, with Michael Jordan and the Tar Heels against Ralph Sampson and the Cavaliers – two of the greatest college basketball players in history.

But then there was N.C. State.

“They had to win the ACC tournament to go to the NCAAs,” Doherty said. “… We probably felt we were the superior team.”

From the start, though, UNC never looked like it. While Jordan and Tar Heels forward Sam Perkins struggled in the first half, Sidney Lowe led the Wolfpack to a 41-39 lead.

The Wolfpack led by as many as eight in the second half, before Perkins, who finished with 24 points, gave UNC a 63-61 lead with about nine minutes to play. The Wolfpack reclaimed the lead and led by five with about four minutes to play, after Jordan had fouled out.

Doherty made a 3-pointer to cut N.C. State’s lead to 70-68, and Brad Daugherty, a freshman, tipped in a Perkins miss to tie the score at 70 in the final minute. Then, after Perkins narrowly missed a long 3-pointer at the buzzer, the game went into overtime.

That’s where Daughtery’s memories begin, 30 years later. Now a NASCAR analyst with ESPN, Daughtery during a recent phone interview didn’t mention his tip-in. What has remained with him, though, is how the Tar Heels turned a six-point overtime lead into a seven-point loss.

“I do remember vividly that we had the game won,” Daugherty said.

At least it appeared that way. With a little more than two minutes to play, the Tar Heels led 82-76.

But then, Daugherty said, “They would foul us and we didn’t make our free throws. It was a brilliant coaching move. It was either 100 percent going to work, or it was 100 percent going to fail.”

During the final two minutes, Chris Hunter and Jimmy Braddock missed the front end of a one-and-one. Braddock, as the Washington Post noted, had once made 257 consecutive foul shots in practice.

While UNC missed shots, Dereck Whittenburg made them. Whittenburg, who led the Wolfpack with 11 points in overtime, made a 3-pointer to cut UNC’s lead to one. After Braddock’s miss, Whittenburg put N.C. State ahead for good with a layup with 51 seconds to play.

“We beat ourselves against them by not making our shots,” Daugherty said. “I felt like we didn’t do what we needed to do to win the game.”

Even so, Daugherty isn’t one of those who believes that the Wolfpack’s run was a fluke. He doesn’t believe N.C. State simply got lucky.

“Shoot,” Daughtery said with the country accent that has become familiar to many NASCAR fans. “That N.C. State team was loaded.”

The Tar Heels and Wolfpack could have met again, in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament. But UNC’s season ended with an 82-77 loss against Georgia in the East regional championship game.

Had UNC won, it would have played N.C. State for a fourth time.

“It would have been fun to play them again,” Daugherty said.

Instead he and the Tar Heels watched the Final Four from Chapel Hill, and watched N.C. State do to Georgia and Houston what the Wolfpack had done to the Tar Heels. Even now, 30 years later, Doherty describes the loss against N.C. State in the ACC tournament as “an out of body experience.”

“You’re just kind of going through the game in slow motion, it’s getting away from you and you’re trying to shake the cobwebs out of your head but you can’t,” Doherty said. “It’s just things that you normally would not do that you end up doing, and then the momentum gets away from you and they win. It was a painful loss.”

For Doherty, the defeats have always been more memorable than the victories. Thirty years later, some of the details have faded. The pain of that defeat hasn’t.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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