Retro Lucas: '93 Carolina 77, Michigan 71
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 today, Dean Smith's Tar Heels won the national championship with a win over Michigan. I watched that game from the Superdome stands, never dreaming--well, OK, maybe I would've dreamed it, but not believed it--that one day I'd actually get to work with Carolina basketball. But here's what I think I would've written if I'd been doing postgame columns on April 5, 1993. The could-have-been columns for the wins over Arkansas, Cincinnati and Kansas are linked at the bottom of this story. Remember, this is as it would've been written on April 5, 1993.
Let’s not make this about Chris Webber.
I’m sure this is a futile request. On Monday night on Bourbon Street, barely an hour after Carolina had claimed the national championship with a 77-71 win over Michigan, Webber (bravely) ventured out onto Bourbon Street. What did he hear?
“Get a timeout, baby! Call a TO, Chris!”
And that is going to be the national storyline. Chris Webber called a timeout the Wolverines didn’t have, and that handed Dean Smith his second national title.
The first part of that sentence is true. Michigan indeed did not have a timeout when Webber formed his hands into the “T” sign—first doing it in the backcourt in front of the Tar Heel bench, then dragging his pivot foot as the referee looked away, almost as if he was trying not to see the miscue, and then making the signal again when he reached the frontcourt. This time, everyone had to acknowledge he had done it; undoubtedly, it’s something Webber himself will hear about for the rest of his life.
But everything about those final minutes was everything we’ve come to love about these 1993 Tar Heels. After all, why didn’t Michigan have a timeout?
Because they’d wasted one earlier in the second half when Carolina switched defenses on an inbounds play, forcing the Wolverines to needlessly burn one in an unimportant situation.
Dean Smith once made the entire team run when Donald Williams called a timeout in practice. “Those,” the head coach told his team, “are mine to use.”
But then, Smith has never been particularly standard. This Carolina team was built not on stars but on a total commitment to the team. For that reason, the head coach felt absolutely no hesitation about putting the following five players on the court with fewer than eight minutes remaining in the national title game: Eric Montross, Scott Cherry, Henrik Rodl, Kevin Salvadori and Pat Sullivan.
These were the five players he wanted to face Michigan’s vaunted Fab Five?
Well, yes. Because Smith wanted to rest his starters, and he wanted to remind Donald Williams, “Keep moving quickly without the ball.”
So what did Williams do? He came back into the game and promptly hit two jumpers, the second of which was a three-pointer that keyed a 9-0 run by the Tar Heels. Twenty years from now, we’ll remember Williams’s Most Outstanding Player performance. Hopefully, we’ll also remember it was partially made possible by Tar Heel depth—and a head coach willing to use it.
It was the starters who finished the game. They’d spent 48 hours hearing about Michigan’s superior athleticism, about the group of five sophomores playing in their second straight national championship game. To read some of the stories, you’d have thought it was an NBA all-star team facing off against the Woollen Gym intramural champions.
Funny thing about those Tar Heels, though—they completely and totally understood how to play the game, and how to play the game together. How does Smith teach them to play: play hard, play smart, play together. This group might forever be the embodiment of that approach.
They managed to play tough defense against the Wolverines without fouling, and had committed just four team fouls when Webber grabbed the rebound off Sullivan’s missed free throw—the Bogota, N.J. native drained the pressure-packed first shot, and would soon become famous nationwide for his enthusiastic but decidedly off-key rendition of “One Shining Moment” during the postgame television broadcast—and decided to bring it upcourt himself.
This was a tic the Tar Heels had noticed when the teams first met this season, in the Rainbow Classic on Dec. 29. “In Hawaii, we saw that Jalen Rose was their best ball-handler, but that sometimes Webber wanted to bring the ball up,” Lynch said. ”We knew Webber didn’t always make the best decisions.”
That’s how the Carolina senior came to linger in the backcourt, cutting off a pass Webber wanted to make to Rose as soon as the Michigan big man grabbed the rebound. If Webber makes that pass…who knows. But he didn’t—and the reason he didn’t was George Lynch.
So Webber had to bring it into the frontcourt himself, facing a Tar Heel defense with two fouls to give. He did exactly what he shouldn’t do—dribbled straight into the corner, where he found himself trapped by Carolina’s two best defenders, Lynch and Derrick Phelps. It was not a called trap. It was two veteran players who had been given authority from Smith to trap when the situation was appropriate. A fundamental Carolina principle: if you see the back of an opponent’s jersey, it’s a great time to trap. That’s what Phelps and Lynch did, and that’s what forced Webber to cause the timeout.
Credit Rose for perhaps the most realistic postgame comment: “Without the timeout, our offense might have just thrown up an airball,” the point guard said. “Chris was trapped. They had a trap on him.”
Years from now, when memories are fuzzier and Michigan is kidding themselves about what would’ve happened if Webber didn’t call the timeout, they will forget that they were outexecuted and outcoached and outplayed. It was a giant mental mistake. But it was a giant mental mistake caused by preparation and execution and teamwork.
Which, ultimately, will be the story of the 1993 Tar Heels…sorry, of the 1993 national champions. Even if few outside of Chapel Hill choose to remember it that way.