The ACC tournament quarterfinals followed a predictable course, with higher seeds in command, until the PA announcer at the Capital Centre drew attention to the huge digital sound meters hanging from the ceiling. The announcer’s seemingly insignificant cue, inviting fans to drive the meter to a level where a light show would be ignited, had an immediate, transformative effect: crowd enthusiasm peaked even as the competitive tide shifted on the floor.
What ensued that weekend 30 years ago at Landover, Md., were three upsets, three overtime contests and a championship game fought to the buzzer before N.C. State emerged with its second ACC title under coach Jim Valvano. By winning the final against North Carolina, previously undefeated in league play, the sixth-seeded Wolfpack matched the Tar Heels for ACC leadership with 10 championships in the conference’s first 34 seasons.
Since then N.C. State’s Triangle neighbors combined to win 20 of 29 ACC titles (Duke 12, North Carolina 8) prior to this week’s tournament at Brooklyn.
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“It’s been a little tough to believe,” former Pack forward Chucky Brown says of the drought. “Our program went through things that other programs didn’t go through. Other programs haven’t really changed cultures. We’ve changed cultures a bunch.”
Still, there was a winning culture under Valvano. His Wolfpack captured the 1983 ACC and NCAA championships and, despite rarely posting a winning record in regular-season league play, went to five straight NCAA tournaments starting in 1985. Finishing first in the ACC standings earned no official recognition until 1990. That absence of acclaim confirmed Valvano’s determination to finish in the middle of the ACC pack, then win the conference tournament.
Others, notably UNC’s Dean Smith, downplayed the importance of the single-elimination event in an era of multiple NCAA entrants from the same league. “Everyone likes to say the test over the long haul is more important than one game. But not to me. To me, that one game was what the long haul was all about,” Valvano said about winning in postseason in a June 1987 interview. “That is what I live for.”
The top three seeds, potentially encountered in ascending order, awaited N.C. State should it advance to the ’87 ACC tournament final. Until, that is, the PA announcer in the D.C. suburbs inadvertently intervened. His invitation to make noise, any noise, came midway during a somnolent second half with seventh-seed Wake Forest trailing by 15 points against No. 2-seed Clemson, winner of 25 games.
The exhortation spurred Duke fans to turn to an old standard. “Go to hell, Carolina, go to hell!” they chanted in quicktime. The cry was immediately picked up by fans throughout the arena. Their throaty defiance, directed at the league’s reigning power, caused the sound meters, reminiscent of the more modest version at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum, to erupt in flashes of light.
At virtually the same instant, Clemson freshman Tim Kincaid, a reserve playmaker who had just entered the game, dribbled to mid-court and took his eyes off the ball to scan the way ahead. Kincaid’s choice was unfortunate when facing Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, the Wake senior who led the ACC in steals from 1985 through 1987. “At 5-3, it was unbelievable how he could dominate a game,” says an admiring Brown.
Bogues, a first team All-ACC performer, swiped the ball from Kincaid and took it in for a layup. The awakened crowd roared. Accompanied by chants of “Let’s go, Wake!,” the Demon Deacons ran off 15 unanswered points and eventually pulled away to a 69-62 victory.
In the nightcap, N.C. State prevailed against No. 3 Duke in overtime. (During their overlapping decade in the ACC, Valvano won 14 of 23 times against Mike Krzyzewski’s squads.) The next step was a semifinal match with Wake, which the Wolfpack had beaten in overtime during a modest three-game winning streak to end the regular season. “We knew that we had a pretty good team, we knew that we had dealt with adversity,” says Brown, a Cary resident these days. “We just kind of had everything kicking. Everybody was getting along. Guys were sacrificing and playing for each other.”
Prior to N.C. State’s late-season rally it endured 10 defeats in a dozen outings, with fans at Reynolds booing the Pack amid a six-game losing streak. Valvano – who added the role of athletic director during the summer of 1986, an arrangement banned several years later amid scandal at Raleigh – had constructed a tough nonconference schedule with the expectation he’d have a frontline led by upperclassmen Mike Giomi and Chris Washburn and developing sophomores Charles Shackleford and Brown. But the 6-11 Washburn jumped to the NBA after his sophomore year, a relatively uncommon move in those days.
Valvano also had to fill a hole created when fleet but undisciplined Kenny Drummond, his third junior-college point guard in four years, left the team in mid-February. With Drummond gone, the coach plugged in Kelsey Weems, Quentin Jackson and combo guard Vinny Del Negro. The change produced an immediate uptick in ball security and leadership. The 6-5 Del Negro had languished on the bench for most of his three seasons; now he proved an adept passer, scorer and shooter, including 50 percent accuracy on the 3-point field goals instituted permanently in 1987.
Player movement was endemic under Valvano as he assembled teams that could compete for championships. “I don’t recruit on a corporate level,” the coach explained in an interview shortly after arriving at Raleigh. “I recruit on a personal level. It’s you and me. I sell kids on that relationship. The most sacred thing in coaching is the coach-player relationship. The hell with everybody else.”
Typically, players fell in and out of love with Valvano. Wings Walker Lambiotte and Andy Kennedy, currently head coach at the University of Mississippi, transferred to other schools following the 1987 season. The pair mostly rode the bench as N.C. State reached the ACC title game.
Both tournament semifinals went to double-overtime, the only time that’s happened. Powered by Bogues’ 17 points and eight assists, the Deacons rallied to force an extra period, then another before succumbing to Valvano’s club. The win earned the Wolfpack a shot at 29-2 North Carolina, an earlier victor against Virginia. The Tar Heels, second-ranked in the nation, featured Kenny Smith, Joe Wolf and J.R. Reid, eventual first-round NBA draft picks. Smith and backcourt mate Jeff Lebo combined to make more 3-point baskets than each of five ACC teams.
So, ever the counter-puncher, Valvano instructed his squad to take away perimeter shots and make the Tar Heels win the game inside. Brown, who led both teams in scoring (18) and rebounding (10) in the final, recalls the coach also expertly goaded his players prior to taking the court. “Golf is going to be on too, and (the NBC network) is going to be ready to switch the game because y’all are going to get blown out,” he said.
Instead the fired-up Wolfpack came away with a 68-67 victory, controlling the boards and making all 14 free throws. Del Negro, the tournament MVP, provided the final margin by hitting a pair of foul shots with 14 seconds remaining. “It was a great weekend for us,” Brown says, gazing contentedly in history’s rearview mirror while waiting for N.C. State to triumph again.