Nearly 35 years later to the day, North Carolina and Indiana will meet again in Philadelphia, together in the NCAA tournament like they were on March 30, 1981, a day that is remembered for the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
The Tar Heels and Hoosiers were scheduled to play that night in the national championship game at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Earlier in the day, the assassination attempt on Reagan put everything on hold.
When NCAA tournament officials received word that Reagan was recovering after an operation, they decided the national title game would go on. The start of it was delayed seven minutes while that decision was made, and Indiana prevailed in a 63-50 victory.
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Since then, UNC and Indiana, two of college basketball’s most storied programs, have played in the NCAA tournament just once. It was a few years later, in 1984, and Indiana’s victory in an East regional semifinal ended Michael Jordan’s playing days at UNC.
In the 32 years since, UNC and Indiana have played each other five times, all in the regular season and most recently in November 2012, when the Tar Heels endured an 83-59 loss at No. 1 Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“Man,” Marcus Paige, the UNC senior guard, said on Saturday night when he remembered that defeat, which came early in his freshman season. “I tried to forget about that game.”
The stakes will be greater when UNC and Indiana play on Friday night in Philadelphia in an NCAA tournament East regional semifinal. The winner will advance to the East Region championship game, one victory away from the Final Four in Houston. For the loser the season will be over.
Woke up to (Indiana point guard) Yogi Ferrell on my TV talking to the sideline reporter about a good win. So I was like, oh, Indiana it is.
UNC’s Marcus Paige
The Tar Heels and Hoosiers have traveled similar but contrasting paths to this intersection. Both teams won the regular season championships in their conferences – UNC in the ACC and Indiana in the Big Ten.
Both teams stumbled in November amid surprising defeats: UNC at Northern Iowa and Indiana at Wake Forest. Both teams have been at their best when it’s most important for college basketball teams to peak. Indiana has won seven of its past eight, and UNC has won seven consecutive games.
And yet there are plenty of differences, too. UNC began the season ranked No. 1, among the few definitive Final Four favorites in a season that has been predictably unpredictable. Indiana, meanwhile, began the season ranked 15th.
All along the Tar Heels retained their status as a favorite, if only they could put it all together. And all along the Hoosiers remained near the top of an an indistinguishable group of next-tier teams – any of which seemed to possess the potential to emerge as a contender if they could just put it all together.
And so they’ve both put it together at the right time. UNC, the top seed in the East, will arrive in Philadelphia playing at its highest level of the season. The Tar Heels dominated for long stretches in the ACC tournament and prevailed in an intense ACC championship game victory against Virginia.
Indiana, meanwhile, lost its first game of the Big Ten tournament but has recovered. The Hoosiers, the No. 5 seed in the East, will arrive in Philadelphia after a 99-74 victory against Chattanooga in the first round of the NCAA tournament and a 73-67 win against fourth-seeded Kentucky on Saturday.
Indiana’s victory against Kentucky came in perhaps the most anticipated game in the second round of the tournament. Many UNC players, including seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, watched the Indiana-Kentucky game while waiting for UNC’s late tip-off against Providence on Saturday night.
Similar offensive success
Paige said he watched the first half of Indiana’s victory and then followed his pregame routine, which called for a nap.
“Woke up to (Indiana point guard) Yogi Ferrell on my TV talking to the sideline reporter about a good win,” Paige said after UNC’s 85-66 victory against Providence. “So I was like, oh, Indiana it is.”
The teams have been similarly successful on offense this season – and Indiana is among the best perimeter shooting teams that UNC will have faced – but the Tar Heels’ defense has been superior, at least statistically. The storylines go well beyond what the teams have done this season, though.
Both schools are among the 10 most victorious in college basketball history. UNC is third and Indiana 10th. Both schools have won five national championships, tied with Duke for third in college basketball history.
When they’ve played each other on this stage in the NCAA tournament, Indiana has twice gotten the best of UNC. The Hoosiers provided Dean Smith with two of his most difficult postseason defeats.
There was the one in the national championship game in 1981. And then the one a few years later in what turned out to be Jordan’s final college game. More than 30 years later the Hoosiers and Tar Heels will meet again in the tournament, and in a city where they share some history.