Lucas: The 10 Best First Weekend Wins

By Adam Lucas | 10 Comment(s) | Posted

As Carolina fans, it's easy to get a little spoiled about the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. After all, the first weekend is for upsets, and usually, the Tar Heels don't want to be on the wrong end of those games. But here's a list of Carolina's ten best wins on the opening weekend (the NCAA has really complicated stories like this by insisting that the First Four should be called the "first round," when we all know the first round actually happens on Thursday and Friday) of the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded in 1975. 

10. March 12, 1977: Carolina 69, Purdue 66. A patched-up Tar Heel team came back from a 44-42 halftime deficit and beat Purdue in Raleigh. Phil Ford, who suffered an elbow injury during the game, scored 27 points and handed out seven assists. Carolina played without Tom LaGarde, who injured his knee in February, and with a limited Walter Davis, who had a broken finger. This team and the 2012 team may head the list of the greatest what-might-have-been teams in Tar Heel history.

9. March 14, 1998: Carolina 93, UNC Charlotte 83 (OT). You knew this was a bad draw right when it went up on the board. Dean Smith had a longstanding policy of not playing in-state schools, because he felt he would never be able to play all the teams that wanted to challenge the Tar Heels. So instead of trying to please all of them, he played none of them. That policy made the eighth-seeded 49ers especially hungry in a second-round game in Hartford. The game was the first meeting ever between the two programs. Diego Guevara forced overtime on a three-pointer with 2.9 seconds remaining, but Antawn Jamison and Shammond Williams (who finished with 32 points) combined to score 15 in overtime to help Carolina to the victory. Charlotte nearly got some officiating help on the way to the upset, as an inadvertent whistle with 1.4 seconds remaining turned a loose ball into a 49ers possession, but they were unable to score the potential game-winning basket.

8. March 19, 1989: Carolina 88, UCLA 81. This is back when UCLA still carried some shine from the Wooden years. Second-seeded Carolina had gotten a bum draw after winning the ACC Tournament, and was set to face the seventh-seeded Bruins in Atlanta at the Omni. To make matters worse, star J.R. Reid missed curfew, a violation that probably could've met with a wink in the middle of the NCAA Tournament. But Dean Smith suspended Reid. "This is one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make as a head coach due to the importance of the UCLA game to all of our squad members," the coach said. And then what happened? Smith coached his Tar Heels to a win, prevailing behind 22 points from Kevin Madden and 11 assists from Steve Bucknall.

7. March 20, 2011: Carolina 86, Washington 83. It's not very often that guarding the inbounds pass is one of the most notable plays of the game. But that's what happened in Charlotte, as the long arms of John Henson deflected Washington's inbounds pass with five seconds left to seal the win. Like the LSU game in 2009, this was a very high-level game that felt more like a regional final than a second-round game. The Huskies actually led by as many as 11 before Carolina stormed back behind Tyler Zeller's 23 points and Kendall Marshall's 14 assists.

6. March 19, 2000: Carolina 60, Stanford 53. There are those who will tell you today they believed in the 2000 team all along. Those people are not telling the truth. The 2000 team was essentially abandoned after the ACC Tournament, then managed to make a remarkable Final Four run, including this victory over top-seeded Stanford. 

5. March 21, 2009: Carolina 84, LSU 70. It doesn't seem right that this was a 14-point game. Carolina even held a 38-29 lead at halftime, but LSU caught fire in the second half at Greensboro behind Marcus Thornton. The Tigers had a 54-49 lead with 12 minutes left, but then Ty Lawson--coming back from a much-discussed injured toe--took over. Lawson scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half and also added six assists and zero turnovers. Roy Williams, who frequently referred to Lawson as "Dennis the Menace" because of Lawson's playful nature, said, "I've never seen Dennis the Menace as tough as he was today."

4. March 19, 1988: Carolina 123, Loyola Marymount 97. This is one of my favorite games from my childhood, because it's when I realized how much smarter Dean Smith was than everyone else. Loyola Marymount was a hot program in the late 1980s. They had a newfangled uptempo style of basketball that was supposed to be everything cool and modern that Carolina wasn't supposed to be. So what did Smith do? He just figured out a way to use that system to beat them at their own game, and the Tar Heels ran Loyola Marymount into the ground and shot 79 percent--79 percent!--from the field.

3. March 16, 1985: Carolina 60, Notre Dame 58. You think Carolina got a bad draw this year? How about 1985, when the second-seeded Tar Heels had to play seventh-seeded Notre Dame on the Fighting Irish's home court on the day before St. Patrick's Day. If you've ever wondered why Digger Phelps seems so bitter about Carolina, this game is a big reason why, as Phelps, then the head coach of the Irish, chose to hold the ball for over a minute in a tie game (there was no shot clock). He was trying to set up star guard David Rivers for the game-winning basket, but the Tar Heels stole the ball from Rivers and Curtis Hunter fired ahead to Kenny Smith, who swooped in for the game-winning layup with three seconds left. Smith then deflected Notre Dame's subsequent inbounds pass to preserve the win. 

2. March 15, 1997: Carolina 73, Colorado 56. This game was Dean Smith's 877th victory, which broke Adolph Rupp's all-time wins record for college basketball. The NCAA, which does not at all consider matchups when putting together the bracket, probably planned for this game to be against Indiana, but the Hoosiers lost to the Buffs in the first round. That set up a second-round game against Carolina, played at Winston-Salem's Lawrence-Joel Coliseum. Due to tiny school allotments in early-round NCAA play, this was probably the toughest ticket in Carolina NCAA Tournament history. Colorado led at halftime, 31-30, as the Tar Heels looked a little tight under an intense national spotlight. But Antawn Jamison's 19 points and 16 rebounds led the Tar Heels back, and they cruised to the record-setting win. 

1. March 17, 1990: Carolina 78, Oklahoma 77. What made this game so fun was what a stark contrast the two teams created. Oklahoma was Billy Tubbs and their brash bunch that even had a routine for crossing their legs on the bench after made free throws (if you're old enough, you remember it). Carolina was, well, Carolina. And the Tar Heels reminded everyone exactly who they were when Rick Fox hit this buzzer-beater in Austin to defeat the top-seeded and nationally top-ranked Sooners: What's your favorite from the above list, and are there any wins not mentioned that you would include?

What's your favorite from the above list, and are there any wins not mentioned that you would include?


  1. Dan Broun's avatar
    Dan Broun
    | Permalink
    Great List Adam. Not sure if I would bump anything out but the 1993 2nd round win over Rhode Island by 45 was I think at the time the biggest blowout in tournament history and was an example of how explosive that team could be.
  2. Adam Lucas's avatar
    Adam Lucas
    | Permalink
    I loved both the wins that weekend. The first-round win over ECU because they actually thought they could compete, and the second-round win because Carolina was so utterly dominant against Rhode Island.

    I also hated to leave out the '87 win over Michigan, which was a 109-97 final at the old Charlotte Coliseum. Two very good teams playing at a very high level in an entertaining game.
  3. Jeff A. Taylor's avatar
    Jeff A. Taylor
    | Permalink
    Telling that we have to dispute this, is it not?

    But...a couple good ones, I think:

    80-81 - Coming off 3 straight early NCAA exits with highly regarded UNC teams following the 77 Final, it looked like Dean sorely missed Phil Ford. However in this monkey-crushing game, Jimmy Black took one shot (missed) but the Heels shot 59% in blowing out Pitt 74-57. This was the Al Wood Run, which included a 39 point FF performance in beating Ralph Sampson's UVa squad.

    91-92 - Hubie and Eric likely remember this one -- for different reasons. Davis shot a horrible 2-17 and the Heels could not throw it in the ocean against a scrappy #13 seed Miami (Oh) bunch in the 1st round. But Montross powered thru for 22 points and 13 boards, a huge performance in a 68-63 win, one which avoided another disappointing quick exit, netted another tourney win the following week, and set the stage for a title run the following year.

    03-04 - Yet another monkey-back, springboard game -- sense a trend? Roy Williams' 1st NCAA game as HC came after a two-year absence from the Dance. Heels were a decent and fair #6 seed, but nerves were frayed headed into ATL and a wired pro-UNC crowd. The UNC team was young and erratic and sure enough, a heady Air Force team took a 28-23 halftime lead behind some 3pt bombs. Things looked bleak. But the Heels came out and jacked up the tempo to score 40 and win by a deceptive 63-52 final. Jackie Manuel might've been the unsung hero with 10 pts. on 5-8 shooting and 7 boards.
  4. Adam Lucas's avatar
    Adam Lucas
    | Permalink
    No doubt this is a nice discussion to be able to have. NC State, for example, has a grand total of 16 opening weekend victories--that's 16 total, not 16 that are memorable or worth talking about or whatever--in the time period we're talking about. In other words, it would be easier to list their wins that DON'T make a list like this than the ones that do.
  5. Will's avatar
    | Permalink
    Only other one that comes to mind is 2007 vs. Michigan State. Probably gets forgotten because a)UNC was supposed to win, and b) we didn't go on to the Final Four. But for much of that game, it felt like Drew Neitzel was going to beat Carolina by himself. I think we were down pretty big in the second half - maybe 14 points or so? Came back and wound up winning going away. Huge sigh of relief.
  6. Fritz Smith's avatar
    Fritz Smith
    | Permalink
    About 1985's bad draw...
    After defeating Notre Dame in South Bend, we then had to travel to Birmingham to play Auburn. Just about every time we are not a high seed, the committee loves to put us in someone's home territory.
  7. Jermey Johnson's avatar
    Jermey Johnson
    | Permalink
    Very nice list of games Adam. I would also throw in the Radford game from 2009 since Hansbrough took the lead as all time ACC scorer. Also, the Iowa St game from 2005, especially since the Cyclones thought they could actually run with that Carolina squad
  8. Hayes Holderness's avatar
    Hayes Holderness
    | Permalink
    One that needs to be on here for sure is 1982 game against James Madison. We barely won, 52-50, and Dean's quest for his first title (with Worthy, Perkins, and Jordan) could have ended that night.

    It was in the round of 32 but it was our first game of the tourney, as we had a first round bye then.
  9. Jim McCormick's avatar
    Jim McCormick
    | Permalink
    The win over I think top seeded Kentucky in the se regional in birmingham
  10. Hayes H's avatar
    Hayes H
    | Permalink
    ^ Jim - this entire column is about first weekend wins, not Regionals...

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