The University of North Carolina, the defending NCAA champion, didn't beat, lose to or even play—as almost everyone presumed it would—St. John's, the Beast of the East, in the final of the NCAA East Regional last week. Instead, the University of Georgia, which is too small, can't shoot and has no basketball tradition at all—the same Georgia that tied for fourth in the SEC this year, the same Bulldogs who might not have reached Syracuse at all except for a disputed basket the week before against Virginia Commonwealth—that Georgia whipped them both. Beat the Redmen to a (Terry) Fair-thee-well on Friday, 70-67, after trailing by 10 points, and then embarrassed the Tar Heels 82-77 on Sunday after leading by 15 with 1:38 left. And you thought Herschel Walkaway was the only 'Dawg to have his day.
North Carolina had reached the final by methodically, albeit unimpressively, dismantling a woefully outclassed Ohio State team 64-51. Carolina Guard Jim Braddock brushed off the lackluster showing with. "In the NCAAs, somewhere along the line you have a bad performance. This was ours." Coach Dean Smith was equally calm, telling his players, "It wasn't pretty, but it was sweet."
At which time St. John's, proud and confident, took over the court for the second semifinal game, a kind of warmup contest against—oh, who cares, just another team wearing red and white. But a wonderful/horrible thing happened, depending on your loyalties. St. John's lost, causing Lou Carnesecca, the mouthy coach everybody loves to love, to say, "It's not the end of the world, for me or for my players." His appearance betrayed his words. He was as disappointed as everyone else was shocked.
Suddenly, an interesting regional had become an ugly duck regional. It looked like a mortal lock for North Carolina, which hadn't lost in nine previous regional finals. Predicted final score: North Carolina 97 (after going into the Four Corners with 17 minutes left in the second half). Georgia 14 (on eight points in the final 1:23 after the Carolina subs rushed in). Even Georgia Coach Hugh Durham confessed, "I can't tell you how surprised I am we are here." Score one for honesty. "I don't even know what conference they play in." said the Tar Heels' All-America center, Sam Perkins. Score one for stupidity.
But the fact is, the Redmen and Tar Heels lost to a school that had never even been to an NCAA tournament before. "We're such a fragile team." Durham had said over coffee one day. "So fragile." Then he went on to lament that his Dogs aren't great perimeter shooters. And that when they want to pass the ball inside, there's no big man to catch it. Then Durham leaned close and said. "But we can win. However, we can't play badly and win." And as it happened, they didn't (play badly) and they did (win). Durham, after all, had passed this way before, even if his team hadn't. In 1972 he took Florida State to the NCAA championship game after beating—are you ready?—North Carolina in the semifinals.
And here he comes again. Forever-more, coaches will be saying, "Remember Georgia in 1983? If they can get to the Final Four, anybody can." Even Durham would admit, "There were only a few people who thought we had much of a chance." A few? There might have been one, assuming Durham believed in miracles.
The Bulldogs weren't lightly regarded; they were totally unregarded. Nobody said much at all about Georgia's credentials—its 22-9 record coming in, its three runaway victories in the SEC tournament and, perhaps most important, its 9-0 record outside the conference.
Indeed, there was quite a bit about the Dogs that merited a second look. "The book on playing Georgia is to zone 'em because they are not a good outside-shooting team," Smith said. Well, that's a book in need of revision. Twelve of the Dogs' first-half 37 points against North Carolina came on shots of 20 feet or longer.
There wasn't one Georgia star; the Dogs were all stars. Their perimeter shooting shattered the Tar Heel zone, and that was crucial to the Georgia game plan. Durham had also felt that the outcome would be determined by streak-shooting Gerald Crosby. In the SEC tournament championship game against Alabama, he had converted 10 of II field-goal attempts. "Crosby is the key," said Durham, "because we don't know what he will do." Crosby scored 17 points and contributed classy ball handling, and Vern Fleming, who may be the best all-around guard in the SEC, also had 17 points.
But a team that lives by outside shooting usually dies by outside shooting. Another Georgia deficiency is a lack of height—understand, the 6'7" Fair can only masquerade as a center, despite his career-high 27 points against St. John's. Small he may be, but he's a big man for Georgia, so when Fair got his fourth personal less than two minutes into the second half and had to go to the bench, why didn't the obvious happen? Why didn't Carolina win?