Memorable moments: N&O sportswriters pick their top story in 2013

December 30, 2013 

The man himself was conspicuous by his absence. The stage was filled with titans of American life, from Oprah Winfrey to Bill Clinton, arranged around President Barack Obama himself at the center.

Instead of Dean Smith, his wife Linnea sat among them, in his place. The former North Carolina men’s basketball/ coach was receiving the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but he could not be at the White House to receive it, let alone enjoy it.

Smith has suffered so mightily from the degenerative brain disease that has afflicted him over the past five years, but this was a particularly painful moment for his loved ones, particularly as the ceremony began and the realization of the circumstances hit home.

Current North Carolina coach Roy Williams sat among the East Room audience with Bill Guthridge, another of Smith’s successors, and members of Smith’s family as Obama spoke of Smith’s record as a basketball coach and humanitarian.

“I was really struggling when I sat down, as to how I was going to handle it,” Williams said. “I was so thrilled for the event but so sad coach couldn’t be there to enjoy it and understand everything that was going on, because deep down I think he really would have been proud of this. So I’m sitting down there and I’m really struggling with mixed emotions.”

“I was really thankful the way President Obama went through the 16 winners. He had some comic relief, the humor he injected into it took me out of the bad place I was in. I was not in a very happy, jovial mood. It was something I was never going to forget. Then I started thinking about what a great, great happening it is for his family.”

Smith might have been denied his place among equals in person, but the White House honor and the ceremony only reinforced a legacy that continues to flourish.

Luke DeCock

The day Duke football arrived

It was in Blacksburg, Va., on Saturday, Oct. 26, that roughly 63,000 people saw something no one could have reasonably predicted: A 13-10 Duke victory over then-No. 14 Virginia Tech. It was the first time the Blue Devils had ever won in Blacksburg (not to mention their first victory over a ranked opponent since 1994).

Duke coach David Cutcliffe was too excited to sit during his postgame news conference. It felt like a breakthrough moment, and, about two months later, it clearly was, as the Blue Devils rolled on to a 10-2 regular-season record, winning eight straight to capture the ACC Coastal Division crown, a feat that did not seem in the realm of possibility after a 58-55 home loss to Pittsburgh in late September.

The all-knowing Las Vegas bookies had been dead wrong, setting Virginia Tech as a 12.5-point favorite, and I challenge anyone to find a TV or conference executive who saw a Duke win coming. The game had been full of surprises.

Laura Keeley

Big year for big numbers

The N.C. High School Athletic Association kicked off a centennial celebration in January and continued throughout the year to celebrate 100 years of high school athletics in the North Carolina.

The NCHSAA traces its history to the state’s first statewide high school competition, a state championship track meet at the University of North Carolina on April 11, 1913. Fifty students from six high schools competed in that first state championship with High Point winning the title.

Raleigh won the first state high school football title that fall.

The NCHSAA celebrated the centennial by selecting 100 male coaches, 100 female coaches, 100 administrators and 100 male and 100 female athletes for recognition.

Millbrook girls win second straight: The Wildcats were the preseason favorites to win the 4A girls’ basketball championship and eight seniors helped deliver an undefeated season. The Wildcats topped Greensboro Page 62-56 for the win in Millbrook’s third consecutive title game.

Eight players eventually signed to play college basketball after helping the Wildcats to back-to-back titles, a 33-0 season and a 95-4 three-year run.

Hicks is amazing: Oxford Webb’s Isaiah Hicks, who now is at UNC, provided one of the best games in NCHSAA championship history during a 73-70 boys’ basketball win against Statesville.

Hicks, at 6-foot-9, scored 34 points, grabbed 30 rebounds and blocked seven shots.

The performance was one of the best championship performances in any sport in NCHSAA history.

Playoff run: Wake Forest advanced to the football playoffs as the No. 4 seed from the Cap Eight 4A. Wakefield, Leesville Road and Millbrook all had better seeding.

But Wake Forest steadily marched through the playoffs, winning four games to reach the 4AA championship game at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium against undefeated Charlotte Mallard Creek. Wake Forest beat Millbrook 27-24 in four overtimes in the third round and nipped Middle Creek 24-23 to reach the title game.

Record-setters: Nyheim Hines was expected to be a good running back at Garner, but he recorded some of the best numbers ever by a runner in the area. Hines scored 60 touchdowns, which is No. 2 on the NCHSAA all-time list, including 50 rushing touchdowns, No. 4 all-time.

He rushed for 3,149 yards, No. 9 on the NCHSAA all-time list.

Tim Stevens

18 innings, and more in Omaha

It lasted 18 innings, and more than six hours, and when it ended – when North Carolina scored the winning run in its 2-1 victory against N.C. State in the ACC baseball tournament – there was a sense that those of us who had been there from the start had watched something historic.

There weren’t many left. The game began at 7:41 on a Saturday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. It ended at 1:51 Sunday morning.

More than hour before it started, people were lined up waiting to get inside. A mass of light blue and red filled the streets outside the park and finally, when they all streamed inside, the announced crowd of 11,392 was largest to watch a college baseball game in North Carolina.

The Wolfpack and Tar Heels had split two regular-season games in Raleigh – where tickets for those games had sold out days in advance – but rain canceled the third game of their series. The rematch in the ACC tournament represented the long-awaited conclusion to what the regular season didn’t decide.

It was fitting, then, that nine innings came and went in Durham without a winner. The Tar Heels and Wolfpack basically played a continuous doubleheader in the ACC tournament. The Tar Heels and Wolfpack never lacked for drama that night, or for memorable performances.

Carlos Rodon, N.C. State’s All-American pitcher, struck out 14 and allowed just one hit in 10 innings. The only run he allowed was unearned, and it came after an error that he committed. The UNC bullpen didn’t allow a run in the final 12 2/3 innings.

UNC first baseman Cody Stubbs drove in Landon Lassiter in the top of the 18th. In the bottom of the inning, N.C. State had the potential tying run on third base with nobody out, but Chris Munnelly retired the next three batters. And then it was over.

Bleary-eyed and tired, Mike Fox, UNC’s coach, greeted reporters past 2 a.m. The first words out of his mouth were: “I don’t have the words to describe what I just saw.”

UNC and N.C. State played twice more during the postseason – both times in Omaha, Neb., at the College World Series. N.C. State won the first of those, and UNC the second – sending the Wolfpack home in the process. The greatest game they’d ever played, though, had to be the one that lasted 18 innings and nearly six hours.

Andrew Carter

Roll Pack storms court after beating No. 1 Duke

Will Privette made up his mind before the end of N.C. State’s upset of No. 1 Duke he would storm the court with the rest of the Wolfpack students.

Of the hundreds who took the court after the 84-76 Wolfpack win, Privette, a senior, got everyone’s attention because he was the first on the court and he got knocked out of his wheelchair.

ESPN’s Dick Vitale helped make Privette an Internet sensation when he worried on the air during the postgame celebration about Privette’s safety.

Turned out, Privette was just fine, thanks to an assist from N.C. State junior C.J. Leslie. Leslie scored a game-high 25 points to help the Wolfpack knock off Duke and then he got the assist of the game when he picked up Privette after he had fallen out of his wheelchair.

“I was about to get crushed, but once C.J. saw me, he started pushing everyone away,” Privette said. “Then he just picked me up and he was jumping up and down and I just kept patting him on the head and saying, ‘Thank you.’

Privette and Leslie turned the moment of fame into full media tour, making stops on ESPN and NBC’s “Today” show.

Two weeks later, the Wolfpack ended a 13-game losing streak to North Carolina with a 91-83 win on the same floor. There was no big postgame celebration, but it was the first time since 2002-03 the Wolfpack had home wins against Duke and UNC in the same season.

Joe Giglio

NHL lockout ends, celebration begins

In January, no one knew if there would be an NHL season.

Haggling over a collective-bargaining agreement for the league continued. The NHL players had been locked out by the owners. The 2012-2013 season appeared to be in jeopardy, and some believed the only hockey game played at PNC Arena might be a scheduled appearance by the Charlotte Checkers, the Carolina Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate.

But in the early hours of Sunday Jan. 6, an agreement on a CBA was reached. Later that day the Checkers’ game against the Norfolk Admirals at PNC Arena was more a celebration of hockey, a release of emotion, a time of joy, than a game.

There would be an NHL season. Among the more than 10,000 people who attended the game were Canes coach Kirk Muller and team captain Eric Staal, both relieved and eager to get the season started.

“There have been moments I thought it was canceled, then moments where I thought we were going to start in a week,” Staal said at the time. “I’m just glad at this point we can just kind of forget about it, put it behind us and look forward to playing.”

Some of the Checkers’ players, including defenseman Justin Faulk and forward Drayson Bowman, soon would be in the Canes’ lineup. The NHL season would be shortened to 48 games, but there was no repeat of 2004-2005, when labor strife resulted in the full season being canceled.

Canes forward Patrick Dwyer might may have summed up everyone’s feelings with a simple tweet that Sunday: "I just want to sing from a mountaintop!"

Chip Alexander

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