Former UNC center Eric Montross remembers the timeout, 20 years later

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 5, 2013 

In all these years Eric Montross had never watched it again and never felt the need to watch it, because he played in North Carolina’s 1993 national championship victory against Michigan and, if anything, the memory grew sweeter with age and more vivid.

“I had in my mind that terrific memory,” Montross said in a recent phone interview of the Tar Heels’ 77-71 victory against Michigan in the ’93 national championship game. “I never felt the need to watch it again, because I had played in it.”

Friday was the 20th anniversary of that night in the New Orleans Superdome – the anniversary of Dean Smith’s second national championship, and of Chris Webber’s panicked plea for a timeout the Wolverines didn’t have. Had it really been that long since Montross and Donald Williams and George Lynch led the Tar Heels to their third national championship?

Had it been that long since Webber, trapped in the corner in front of his team’s bench, his team trailing by two with the final seconds ticking away, threw up his hands and made a “T” that resulted not in a timeout, but in a technical foul that UNC used to put the game away?

In some ways it all still feels so fresh to Montross, now a UNC basketball analyst on the Tar Heels’ radio network. In other ways it doesn’t. He has a family now. A daughter who will be 13 soon. He said she asked him recently: “Daddy – do you realize it’s been 20 years?”

“To her, 20 years – dinosaurs were roaming the Earth when we won it,” Montross said with a laugh.

That championship lives on, though, because of the way it ended – with Webber’s mistake costing his team a chance to steal victory in the final seconds – and because it was Smith’s second, and final, national championship. He retired four years later.

The final seconds, when Webber got away with a travel after a defensive rebound, and then when he signaled for that infamous timeout, are likely to receive some airtime this weekend, what with Michigan back in the Final Four for the first time since that night. (This article continues below the video.)

Montross, though, never felt the need to watch again until recently, after he told Steve Kirschner, the UNC basketball team spokesman, he’d never watched a replay. Kirschner sent him home with a DVD – the CBS broadcast version. Montross watched it with his family.

“My kids pointed out that I missed a few more field goals than maybe I should have,” Montross said. “And funny things that were just cute that I’d never thought about. But it was a lot of fun to look back on that.”

Looking back, Montross most remembers that team’s unselfishness, and its toughness. UNC lost four games, and each made the Tar Heels stronger, Montross said.

The Heels suffered a one-point loss against Michigan in late December in the Rainbow Classic, and then won their next nine. UNC suffered back-to-back ugly losses against Wake Forest and Duke in the middle of ACC play, and then won 11 straight. The final defeat came against Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament championship game.

“That kind of recalibrated us,” Montross said. “We knew that we couldn’t play like that, despite the fact that Derrick (Phelps) had been injured, and didn’t play. Despite that, we knew that we had to raise our level of play as a unit.

“And that was the thing that that team was so good at doing.”

UNC blew out its first two opponents in the NCAA tournament, East Carolina and Rhode Island, and then closer victories against Arkansas and Cincinnati put the Tar Heels in the Final Four. They beat Kansas in the semifinals, which set up the rematch against Michigan.

It was the last stand for the Wolverines’ Fab Five, the decorated five-man recruiting class that included Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose – a class that has become more mythical as the years have gone by. UNC didn’t enter championship Monday with any nicknames.

Montross said he and his teammates didn’t think much about the hype surrounding Michigan, and its stars.

“For us it was not about the Fab Five,” he said. “It was about Webber and Howard and Rose and (Jimmy) King – those were the names. It was not us going up against some bigger entity.”

The Tar Heels approached that game like they did any other. The goal, Montross said, was to set up Michigan to fail.

It didn’t matter how.

“Our goal was to force them into mistakes,” Montross said. “And I think that a lot of people point to the timeout. Well, that definitely was one of the mistakes.”

In an instant, the timeout became one of those where-were-you-when-it-happened moments. Montross was at the scorer’s table, preparing to check back in. The Tar Heels led 73-71. Less than 20 seconds remained.

After Pat Sullivan missed a free throw, Webber grabbed the rebound and appeared to travel.

“He did travel,” Montross said. “You can look at the film – he definitely traveled.”

On the TV broadcast, Billy Packer, the CBS color analyst, screamed into his microphone: “Oh, he walked! He walked and the referee missed it!”

Sixteen seconds left. Webber dribbled up the court, working his way left on the TV screen.

Eleven seconds left. Jim Nantz, the CBS play-by-play man, told a national audience, “They have no timeouts left.”

Sitting in front of the scorer’s table, Montross watched the drama unfold before him.

“We had our two best defenders, Derrick and George (Lynch), were right there on (Webber),” Montross said. “And they were corralling him into a corner, where we knew we wanted the ball to be. We loved to trap in that corner as much as anything on defense, because it gave us so many opportunities.”

This time, the trap didn’t force a bad pass. It didn’t result in a steal. But Webber panicked, and called a timeout his team didn’t have.

“A huge mental mistake,” Packer exclaimed.

In the 20 years since, Montross has thought often about that night. Webber’s gaffe receives too much blame, Montross said. In the Time-Out Restaurant on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, a large picture of Webber, trapped and calling for time, hangs on the wall, overlooking tubs of fried chicken and yams.

It hangs there like it does in the minds of people, on both sides, who watched and will never forget. Montross has never talked about the game with Webber.

“We always had a very cordial relationship,” Montross said. “But I think out of respect, I’ve never broached that topic. Just because he gets it enough. Why does he need it from somebody else?”

EXTRA: Explore stats from UNC's 1993 season and Dean Smith's coaching career. (Click the gray boxes below.)

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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