1983 | Jim Valvano: 'This could be a divine mission'

ctudor@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2012 

The day after N.C. State’s win over Virginia for the 1983 ACC championship, Jim Valvano and his Wolfpack had returned from Atlanta to a rousing celebration in and around Reynolds Coliseum.

While assistant coaches began preparations for the NCAA opening game against Pepperdine in Corvallis, Ore., Valvano attended a news conference. As usual, it was JTV time – James Thomas Valvano – at its best.

At various times that Monday afternoon, Valvano referred to the pending trip to the West Coast as a journey, a crusade, a quest, you name it.

The most memorable line from the coach was this one: “This could be a divine mission. That’s the way I’m going to approach it.”

What unfolded during the following three weeks will forever rate as one of the most compelling stories in college basketball history, a story that could have ended almost everywhere along the way.

Sloan’s legacy

As the Wolfpack’s coach from 1966 through the 1979-80 season, Norm Sloan won an NCAA title in 1974 and did a great deal of stage-setting for the ’83 season.

Sloan and his staff recruited Thurl Bailey, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe out of the Washington, D.C., area.

As teammates at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., Lowe and Whittenburg were so closely tied to Sloan that both wanted to transfer when the coach and State parted paths and Sloan took the Florida job.

“It was very emotional,” Lowe said later. “I was really determined to transfer, but coach Sloan said he wouldn’t even consider it. He made us stay at State and told us we should honor our commitment. He told us we would play on great teams. It’s strange how things can work out for the best.”

Sloan, a former State player under Everett Case, paid a price for the selfless act. His 1980-81 Gator team went 12-16, followed by 5-22 in the season when Whittenburg and Lowe would have become eligible.

It was fitting that Sloan and his family were in Albuquerque to see his former recruits enjoy the ultimate triumph. Sloan died in Durham at the age of 77 in 2003.

Whit hurt, vows to return

At 7-1, the Pack was ranked 19th nationally and had lost only to No. 14 Louisville (57-52) when No. 2 Virginia arrived at Reynolds Coliseum on Jan. 12, 1983.

One of the most memorable and important games ensued. Virginia won 88-80. But of more importance was a right-foot injury Whittenburg sustained.

At the half, State led 53-48 primarily because Whittenburg converted seven 3-pointers and had 27 points in 20 minutes against Virginia’s zone defense.

But early in the second half, Whittenburg took a shot from the deep right-corner and landed on the foot of Virginia guard Othell Wilson.

Whittenburg left the game, and Ralph Sampson (33 points, 21 rebounds) led Virginia to the win.

A day later, Thursday afternoon, Jim Valvano informed reporters that Whittenburg had suffered a broken metatarsal bone and probably wouldn’t be able to play again until March at the earliest.

In the locker room after having watched his teammates practice, Whittenburg laughed loudly at Valvano’s prognosis.

“I’ll be back before tournament time. I promise you that. Make sure you guys put that in your stories, too,” he said. “I want State fans everywhere to know this injury ain’t the end of my season.”

Sure enough, Whittenburg returned Feb. 27, a Sunday and at Virginia.

Without Whittenburg, sophomore Terry Gannon and freshman Ernie Myers stepped up. The Pack went 9-5 but dropped out of the national rankings.

Virginia was No. 3 for the second game and won 86-75 even though Whittenburg played 24 minutes and scored 14 points.

In the next game, a 67-58 loss to Maryland in Reynolds, Whittenburg started, went 32 minutes and scored 15 points.

“We lost and Whit’s rhythm isn’t there yet, but we’ve got to have him out there if his foot is healed and the doctors say it has,” Valvano said.

‘Dead teams don’t score 130 points’

Two days later, the chemistry of old was back in the regular-season finale. The Pack handed Wake Forest a stunning 130-89 loss in Reynolds on Senior Day.

Whittenburg had 25, Lowe 18 and Bailey 23.

“People think we’re dead. We’re not dead. Dead teams don’t score 130 points,” Whittenburg said.

ACC opener: Narrowest of escapes against Wake

The Wolfpack (17-10) entered the ACC tournament at the Omni in Atlanta seeded No. 4 and thinking it had to win it all to reach the NCAAs.

It faced Wake Forest (17-10) for the second time in less than a week.

After having won 130-89 in Raleigh, this one would be a 71-70 harrowing escape made possible by a Lorenzo Charles free throw with 3 seconds left.

The score was tied at 70 with more than 4 minutes left when Wake Forest began playing for the final shot. As the clock approached 10 seconds, Lowe stole a pass near midcourt. The Pack called timeout. The Deacons fouled Charles, who made the second free throw after missing the first.

A loss would have sent the Pack to the NIT.

ACC semis: Beating UNC sealed NCAA bid

State stunned top-seeded UNC, 91-84 in overtime but the victory was put in motion three weeks earlier in Raleigh.

Valvano was 0-7, including two in the ACC tournament, against Dean Smith’s teams when the Tar Heels arrived in Raleigh for the season’s second regular-season game Feb. 19.

Whittenburg was sidelined by the foot injury and Carolina was favored by 11 points.

With just under three minutes left in the first half, UNC led 31-22 and seemingly was on its way to another easy win over Valvano.

Everything changed when Smith drew a technical foul and a second was immediately assessed to the Tar Heel bench. State converted four straight free throws, the noise was overwhelming and State went to take a 70-63 win.

After the season was over, State’s Bailey looked back on the landmark win over UNC as the most important regular-season game of the season.

“That was the game that gave us more confidence than any other game all season,” Bailey said. “We made the comeback and got the win with Whit injured and we did it without a lot of help on 3-point shots.

“We probably wouldn’t have been confident enough to win the games in Atlanta if it hadn’t been for that win over Carolina.”

Whittenburg was back for the ACC semifinal. State outscored UNC 15-2 during the final two minutes of regulation and then was down by six points in overtime.

Only a close miss on a long jumper by Tar Heels star Sam Perkins allowed the Pack to force the extra period.

NCAA Selection Committee member Dave Gavitt later said the win over UNC secured the Pack an at-large bid, but Valvano told his players that Saturday night in Atlanta they were still NIT bound unless they could defeat 2nd-ranked Virginia in the championship Sunday.

“We didn’t know if we were in or out of the NCAA,” Bailey said. “But in a way, getting one more chance to beat Virginia was the most important thing on our minds. Most people thought the best two teams in the country were Houston and Virginia. We’d seen enough of Virginia to know we could beat them if we played up to our potential, but we had to go out and prove it.”

ACC final: Technical helped slay Sampson

An 81-78 Wolfpack title win over the Cavaliers hinged on an unlikely technical foul call against Virginia assistant Jim Larranaga, now the Miami head coach.

The call, which came with 5:15 left and the Pack up 71-66, turned into a four-point possession and seemingly took the wind out of the powerful Wahoos.

Ralph Sampson had 24 points and 12 rebounds, but the Pack’s Sidney Lowe (18 points, five rebounds, four assists) was named most outstanding player in the tournament.

The Wolfpack won the ACC tournament by a combined 11 points.

NCAA opener: ‘So lucky, it’s not even funny’

Before facing Jim Harrick’s Pepperdine team in an NCAA West opening game at Oregon State’s Gill Arena, Valvano made an eerie prediction.

“We’ll be so flat we’ll probably lose,” Valvano said. “But if we can just get by somehow, someway, I think we’ll win it all.”

By all rights, State should have lost, too. The Pack missed its first 12 shots. Three were air balls.

And before winning 69-67 in double overtime, the Pack had to get three key free throw misses by Waves guard Dane Suttle (among the nation’s leading free throw shooters), a near miraculous follow shot by McQueen (his only points of the game) and two unlikely rallies, one of which was from six points down with 90 seconds left in the first overtime.

“We were so lucky it’s not even funny,” Valvano said. “But watch out world. We’re going to be a tough out from now on.”

UNLV blows 12-point lead, sees destiny

Two days later against No. 3-seeded Nevada-Las Vegas (28-2 entering the game), State won 71-70 on Bailey’s follow shot after trailing 52-40 with about 11 minutes left.

“The more I see of that team, the more I’m convinced they could just be a team of destiny,” crushed UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian said.

Valvano: “These blowouts are driving me crazy and I’m losing my voice but fortunately, I’m Italian and can talk with my hands. Otherwise, I’d have to completely turn all of the coaching over to Sidney.”

Heels trip and fall, another door opens

In Ogden, Utah, the Wolfpack had a rare easy game although the 75-56 West Regional semifinal win over Utah was close for 30 minutes and had the feel of a road game throughout.

But in order to secure a spot in the Albuquerque Final Four, the Pack had to go through Virginia and Sampson one more time. It was the fourth meeting of the two ACC powers in 1982-83 and came only two seasons after Terry Holland’s team reached the Philadelphia Final Four only to lose to UNC in the national semifinals.

On the Friday before the Saturday night game, Lowe sat in the lobby of the Ogden Hilton hotel and talked about the circular nature of the season’s saga.

“We’re right back where we’ve been so many times this season – looking at Virginia and UNC. We’ve got to prove we can go get ’em both again,” Lowe said.

Like almost everyone else, the State players fully expected the No. 2-seeded Tar Heels to win their Sunday East championship game against underdog Georgia, which would set up an ACC Saturday Final Four semifinal yet again.

“Sure, we’re pulling for Carolina,” Whittenburg said. “We just want to make sure we’re the team down there waiting for ’em when they get to New Mexico, and not Virginia. We plan to hold up our end of the deal.”

Sure enough, State did. But in Syracuse, UNC center Sam Perkins made the mistake of motivating Georgia’s players by stating during Saturday’s interview sessions that he had no idea in what conference the Bulldogs played, much less anything about the program’s history.

In Perkins’ defense, there wasn’t much to know or say. But Bulldog stars James Banks, Terry Fair, Vern Fleming and Gerald Crosby didn’t care for the tone of Perkins’ words and played the game of their lives in the East final, winning 82-77 over Perkins, Michael Jordan and one of Smith’s best teams.

Seeded fourth in the East, Georgia coach Hugh Durham and his team removed not only UNC but also No. 1 regional seed St. John’s from what began as a 52-team NCAA field.

V’s timeout advice: Miss FTs, and you’re back in Brooklyn

Meanwhile in Ogden, the Pack played one of its best games of the season in a 63-62 win over the West’s No. 1-seeded Wahoos.

Although Sampson had another big game (23 points, 12 rebounds) and the Cavs shot 64 percent, they missed nine free throws and couldn’t get the ball to Sampson on the final possession.

Valvano, a master of exotic defensive tactics, put his team in a 3-1 zone with Whittenburg in man-to-man against Virginia guard Othell Wilson.

Isolated by the defense of Charles and McQueen, Sampson couldn’t get free and when Whittenburg successfully checked Wilson on the elbow, Cavalier wing forward Tim Mullen was forced to lauch a jumper from the top of the key. It missed and Sampson didn’t have a prayer for a stick-back.

The winning points? Two free throw conversions by Charles with 23 seconds left after a friendly pep talk by Valvano and Whittenburg during a timeout just before the shots.

To keep things loose in the huddle, Valvano told Charles (a Brooklyn, N.Y. native) that he controlled his destiny.

“Make these and we go to Albuquerque. Miss ’em and your big fanny’s on the way back to Brooklyn,” Valvano joked.

The laugher among the players could be heard several yards away.

Whittenburg told Charles, “OK Lo, what’s it gonna be? Kerque or Brooks?”

Charles: “Kerque, Kerque. I got these.”

Waiting for luck to run out

At The Pit in Albuquerque, the No. 6-seeded Pack was joined by Georgia (4-seed East), Houston (1-seed Midwest) and Louisville (1-seed Mideast).

All parties had nicknames.

Houston was “Phi Slama Jama,” Louisville was “Doctors of Dunk,” Georgia played up the “Sweet Georgia Brown” and peach basket angles and State was the “Cardiac Pack” and/or “Destiny’s Darlings.”

Houston and Louisville were such overwhelming favorites that the State-Georgia game was almost immediately dubbed the under card or jayvee game by the national media.

Houston had been stopped in the ’82 semifinals in New Orleans by North Carolina, which led the Cougars to view State in the same vein as Perkins had framed Georgia.

Louisville, in that eventful ’82 Final Four, had narrowly lost to Georgetown and didn’t think of State as being in Carolina’s class.

Georgia had just ousted the Tar Heels in the East final, and figured the Pack couldn’t be any tougher to knock out.

“Everybody here is just waiting for us to run out of luck and come back down to earth. Good. Great, really. That’s what we want ’em to think,” Valvano said on the Thursday before the Final Four. That was the first day he began to show signs of developing influenza.

By the end of Saturday’s 67-60 win, Valvano had a 100-plus degree temperature. Most of the national media was so fixated with Houston’s 94-81 win over Louisville that Valvano and the Pack were lost in the background.

Bailey’s dunk sent message; Charles’ delivered title

The popular presumption throughout Sunday and Monday was that State would play keepaway with its array of guards and wingers. Even Houston coach Guy Lewis seemed to buy into that theory.

“We’ll have to use our defense to get the offensive tempo we want,” Lewis said.

That the Cougars were over confident was obvious. It played a role in what unfolded on the first possession of the game – a point-blank, baseline dunk by Bailey with less than 40 seconds after the opening jump-ball.

“That first play was as important as the last one,” Valvano said. “It was the absolute best way for us to start.”

It was more than a basket in what would be a 54-52 final score. Bailey’s jam was a statement play that let Houston know there would be no slowdown, no game of chase and hide.

Houston player Reid Gettys disputes the theory that his team was overconfident.

“The biggest myth to me over the years was an assumption, because it became a better story, that from our perspective the national title was won two nights before against Louisville,” Gettys said.

“That is absolutely 100 percent false. We never thought that. We never felt that way. The media and the hype dramatically underestimated N.C. State. We never did. That was our entire focus. When Whittenburg and Lowe were both healthy, that entire season they only had one or two losses. We knew that. We knew they had three or four NBA players. We never for a second underestimated that team.”

The final words

Whether the Cougars were too confident will be debated as long as the final score is rated among the biggest upsets in NCAA history.

In other words, forever.

A popular point of speculation held that if Houston and the Pack played 10 games, the Cougars would win nine. Perhaps such conjecture perfectly frames the outcome that occurred that night in New Mexico. Something special happened. Something even the most neutral fans will remember for many, many years.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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