Retro Lucas: '93 Carolina 75, Cincinnati 68 (OT)
The Carolina basketball season is over, but I'm not quite ready to stop writing postgame columns just yet. So I thought I'd try something unique in honor of the 20th anniversary of Carolina's 1993 national championship.
Twenty years ago yesterday, Dean Smith's Tar Heels beat Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament regional final. I watched that game at home with my dad. But here's what I think I would've written if I'd been doing postgame columns on March 28, 1993. If you enjoy this trip down memory lane, we'll do it again for the remaining two games on Carolina's trip to the '93 title. Remember, this is as it would've been written on March 28, 1993.
Maybe now Nick Van Exel is a believer.
On the day before Carolina faced Cincinnati in the East regional final, the mouthy Bearcat guard explained how unimpressed he was with Dean Smith.
“I think Dean Smith is a good coach with great players,” Van Exel said. “With all the talent he’s had, who wouldn’t have won all those games? To be honest, I think he should have won a few more championships. I don’t really consider him a great coach.”
That’s OK, because I don’t really consider Van Exel a national championship-type player, since he’ll be watching at home on television while the Tar Heels face Kansas in New Orleans for the right to play for the title.
Give Van Exel credit—he almost had the fortitude to back up his mouth. He scored 21 points in the first 15:10 of the game, as hot as virtually anyone who has ever played against Carolina. At that moment, he was on pace to score 50 points and Cincinnati led by 13 points.
That’s when a “good coach” probably would’ve just shook his head and marveled at the offensive display. Luckily, Carolina has a great coach, and has one since the summer of 1961.
Smith altered the UNC defensive approach. You know those team defensive principles, the ones that form the backbone of the Tar Heel approach (don’t use the word “system” around Dean Smith, please)? They were scrapped. After watching Van Exel light the first half on fire, Smith didn’t design a complicated box-and-one. Instead, he did something very simple:
He took Carolina’s best defender, Derrick Phelps. He told Phelps to stay with Van Exel. And then he watched the Bearcats struggle.
“He told us Van Exel was a key matchup,” said Phil Ford, who has experience with Smith as both a player and a coach. “That’s the only time I can ever remember him doing that.”
Van Exel proved to be much better at press conferences than at scoring against Phelps. After getting his quick 21 points, he closed 1-for-10 (8-for-24 overall from the field), and had exactly one basket over the final 30 minutes of the game.
“When he was hitting, we weren’t playing man-to-man,” Phelps said. “I was trapping, trying to help double-team other people, but Coach Smith said to just stick on him and let the other guys worry about the traps. I think he got real tired. Every time he touched the ball, I was on him.”
Phelps has done this before, of course. The junior is on his way to becoming one of the best defenders in Tar Heel history. He’s played solid defense against players like Virginia’s Cory Alexander (4-for-14 in February) and Duke’s Bobby Hurley (2-for-12 in March). This time, though, he did it with the Final Four on the line and against an opponent who was already sizzling.
Oh, and if you’re doing the math on Van Exel’s stats, you might realize they don’t quite make sense. If he had 21 points in the first 15 minutes, then how were there still 30 minutes left to play?
Well, that’s because the Tar Heels decided to get a little extra practice. At least, that’s the way Smith framed it. I don’t know what was going on in your living room when Brian Reese missed a wide-open dunk in a tie game on an inbounds play with 0.8 seconds remaining in regulation. Somewhere in Cary, I suspect there was a high schooler and his dad—who had moved into separate rooms to watch the game to stop the Bearcat mojo—howling in anguish, with the kid eventually having to watch the game from under his bed because that’s where all the luck was.
Maybe you were more mature. Or maybe you were like Ford, who actually turned a back somersault when Reese’s dunk bounced high off the rim. Such is Ford’s legendary competitiveness that even 20 years from now, you suspect, he is going to just grin and say, “I honestly don’t remember anything on that play.”
So while everyone else was turning flips and crawling under the bed, Smith remained calm. After drawing up the play on the fly, he watched as Cincinnati set up their defense. He saw how they were going to defend the play, and he knew how the Tar Heels would execute the play. The head coach tapped Ford on the leg.
“We’ve got them,” Smith said.
Imagine that. He already knew exactly what was going to happen, exactly how the screens were going to clear a path and Reese was going to dive wide-open to the rim, where he would simply win the game and the Tar Heels would make travel plans for the bayou.
It fell apart when Reese missed the dunk—naturally, Smith said after the game he didn’t think it would have counted anyway (it was clear from the reaction of the game officials that it would have, but it’s no surprise that Smith would choose to deflect attention from his player.
Having just watched a potentially crushing miscue, having just drawn up the perfect play and watched human error sabotage it, here is what Smith told his team at the end of regulation:
“We haven’t played an overtime all year. We can use this practice.”
Spoken like a great coach. As even, perhaps, Nick Van Exel might agree.