Oh for six. Goose eggs by the half dozen. How many times had he heard it? And there it was happening to Dean Smith once more as his North Carolina team, behind again, passed the ball around the Georgetown zone with the clock running down in Monday night's NCAA championship game in the Louisiana Superdome,
Over a multitude of Marches, if it wasn't Alcindor, it was Mount; if it wasn't a McGuire farewell, it was an Isiah goodby. If it wasn't one thing, it was always another whenever Smith and the Tar Heels got to the Final Four. They had lost to the best college champion in history ( UCLA, 1968), and they had lost to the two champions with the most defeats ( Marquette, 1977; Indiana, 1981). "I think I've handled it well. I don't feel the emptiness," Smith had said on Friday.
But in sport as in life there are turnings. To everything, there is a season. Surely this time, this turn, belonged to Dean Smith. In New Orleans, The City That Care Forgot, care couldn't get this brilliant, star-crossed basketball coach.
And so Smith's turn came Monday at 9:05 p.m. CST, (Four) Corners Stall Time, as 61,612—the largest crowd ever to see a game in the Western Hemisphere—rose to give him his due. Not only his, however, because the roar that was sent up like God's own thunder honored the play and the players on both sides, such was Carolina's wondrous 63-62 victory over Georgetown.
To win, the Tar Heels had to significantly alter their strategy against the Hoyas' 7-foot monster-child, Pat Ewing. At first Carolina tried to cut the court in half and challenge the elegant giant. Eventually, they had to rely on Forward James Worthy (who made 13 of 17 field-goal attempts, had 28 points and was "the most explosive he's ever been," according to his frontcourt running mate, Sam Perkins) to rush down the floor and jam the ball through the hoop before Ewing, a human PAC-MAN, swallowed them all alive.
Still, Carolina was, as Smith put it, "the hunted," and Georgetown, quicker, ravaging, downright frightening in its full court press, was "the hunter." After a time-out with 32 seconds left when Carolina was behind for the 12th time, 62-61, Guard Jimmy Black faked a pass to Perkins down low. The Georgetown defender at the point, Sleepy Floyd, fell for the fake, so Black reversed the ball to Michael Jordan on the left side.
Jordan, as ice-bucket cool as a 6'5" freshman could be, had already contributed six baskets and nine rebounds. Now with 18 seconds to go, Jordan caught Black's pass in front of the Carolina bench. He was all alone. It was a play designed for him. He was right where he had imagined he would be on the bus ride over from the hotel, with the ball—and the game—in his hands. "I didn't see it go in," he said. "I didn't look at the ball at all. I just prayed." String music, choir.
Georgetown raced downcourt without calling a time-out. Guard Fred Brown had the ball. Floyd, the shooter, was in the corner. Eric Smith was floating backdoor. But Brown blanked out. With eight seconds left, Brown looked out of the corner of his eye, thought he saw Smith and threw a perfect pass chest-high. "But it wasn't him," said Brown later. "If I'd had a rubber band, I would've pulled it back."
It was Worthy who clutched the ball to his chest and then dribbled the other way, a phantom from Mardi Gras escaping into the Louisiana night.
Worthy was deliberately fouled at :02, and after a final Georgetown time-out, missed both free throws, proving he knows an anticlimax when he sees one. And then it was over. The closest NCAA championship game since 1959 and one of the best ever, was over.