In celebration of the Smith Center's 30th season, I'm counting down the 30 best Carolina games ever to be played in the House That Dean Built. If you missed Part 1, you should go check it out. Three Carolina losses in the first five games on the list? Yup. There aren't many more.
“The Snow Game.”
It’s possibly the most random game on this list. There wasn’t a memorable finish. There wasn’t a ridiculous individual performance. It wasn’t a back and forth war. But the story of the Dean E. Smith Center cannot be told without this contest.
Carolina entered this contest 11-8, 2-3 in the ACC, and riding a four game losing streak. Two years removed from the Final Four, the 2000 Tar Heels appeared to be in a freefall, going from 6th in the AP poll to out entirely in the span of four weeks. With 22nd ranked Maryland, led by young studs Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, and Lonny Baxter, coming into Chapel Hill midweek, the Heels’ fortunes didn’t seem to be improving anytime soon. Though we’d find out otherwise two years later, this felt like rock bottom.
Then the snow started to fall.
The white stuff fell on Monday. Then Monday night. Then more fell on Tuesday. More than 16 inches had come down in Chapel Hill by the time it was all said and done, even more in the surrounding areas, and there was no way the game was being played as scheduled Wednesday night. Somehow, though, unlike another team just up the road 14 years of technological improvements later, Maryland made it to Chapel Hill, and the game was played 24 hours later, with roads around the Triangle in bad enough shape to leave probable attendance up in the air.
But for as many people who were trapped at home, there were thousands of students trapped on campus, needing something to pass the snow-covered time. And what better than a basketball game with Carolina’s season on the ropes? Thus, an unusually younger crowd occupied the lower bowl of the Smith Center on a Thursday night in January for a huge ACC showdown with the Terrapins. And the atmosphere was noticeably different from the opening tip.
The Terps rode out a quick 6-0 start by Carolina, got ahead by as much as 11, and led 41-34 at the half. The Tar Heels managed to stay close only by a 15-16 effort at the stripe. But early in the second half, everything came together. With the Terps up 47-45, Terence Morris drained a corner three with Jason Capel’s hand in his face to push the Maryland lead back to five. Kris Lang, still recovering from a respiratory virus, instantly answered with a dunk. Julius Peppers would knock away a Maryland pass, and Joseph Forte would find Capel for a layup, and then Max Owens would nail a three from the left corner to give Carolina a 52-50 lead. The Terps would turn it over again, and the teams would exchange possessions before Ed Cota swished a three from the top of the key. Then, Brendan Haywood would drain a short jumper in the paint to make it 57-50 UNC with 11:00 left to play, and Lang got a hook shot on a pretty feed from Cota to cap the 14-0 run and send the Dean Dome into a frenzy.
The Terps weren’t done, and a putback jam by Baxter with 9:00 left pulled Maryland back within five. It would hover around that margin until Dixon got a bucket on a drive to bring the Terrapins back to within 62-60. But a Peppers layup and a Haywood rebound jam off a Cota miss would push the Heels away for good. Haywood finished with 23 points, Carolina won 75-63, and the students stormed the court afterward – a strange thing to do when you’re a perennial power and the opponent is not even ranked in the top 20, but given the bizarre circumstances, it actually made sense.
This Maryland bunch would ultimately accomplish big things. While they’d only reach the second round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament, they would advance to the Final Four the two seasons afterward, and captured the 2002 NCAA Title. Carolina wouldn’t entirely turn the season around on this game, but it would right the ship long enough in March to make a run to the Final Four as an 8 seed. But the lasting impression from this contest came the following season, when new coach Matt Doherty, pointing to this game as rationale, was finally able to work out a deal with the Rams Club to get a sizeable student section in the lower bowl for the first time in the 15 year history of the arena.
There were some lofty expectations placed upon the 2006-07 Tar Heels. The totally overhauled Heels had struggled early the prior season, but rallied to run the table in the back half of the conference schedule – including spoiling J.J. Redick’s Senior Night in Durham – only to get upset in the second round of the NCAA’s. With the core of that group back, and a tremendously loaded incoming freshmen class, Carolina was picked by many to make a return to the Final Four. This game, the main event in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, was their first marquee showdown.
The Heels had been punched in the mouth already, having been upset by Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden in the Preseason NIT semifinals the week prior, so the jury was still out on just how good this bunch was. With top ranked Ohio State coming to the Smith Center, Carolina would have their chance to impress the nation in a much-hyped, primetime, ESPN affair. The Buckeyes may have been the #1 team in the nation, but they, too, were vulnerable, as ballyhooed freshman big man Greg Oden was not ready for action yet, still recovering from wrist surgery in the offseason, forcing Ohio State to run with a small lineup.
The result was a track meet, which is exactly how Roy Williams likes it.
The Bucks got out in front early, scooting to a 12-4 lead after Ron Lewis’ three point play that quickly sent Carolina freshman center Brandan Wright to the bench with his second foul before the first TV timeout. The Heels pounded it inside to stay close, with buckets by Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, and Alex Stepheson, but Ohio State would go on an 11-4 spurt behind hot shooting from Lewis and Daequan Cook to go up 33-23 going into the under eight timeout. Then the Heels swung back again, getting back to back threes from Bobby Frasor and a big jam by Hansbrough to cut the margin back to two and get Buckeyes’ head coach Thad Matta to call for time. Carolina would draw as close as one on a Danny Green jam on a nice pass from Frasor, but would get no closer before the half, with Ohio State taking a tenuous 48-44 lead into the locker room. The game was right where Roy wanted it.
Carolina jumped the Bucks right out of the gate in the second half, back to back Hansbrough buckets tied the game, and UNC would get its nose out front for the first time all night on a Reyshawn Terry follow up just over two minutes into the half, and Wayne Ellington would sink a three to make it a 9-0 run before the Bucks finally got on the board again. After another Ellington bomb, Ohio State streaked back, reclaiming the lead on three consecutive Ivan Harris threes, with three buckets from Wright keeping Ohio State from really stretching it out before the Buckeyes went cold again. Hansbrough would put Carolina back in front with a tough bucket in traffic with 8:29 left, and when Terry sank a three from the right wing in front of the bench, it capped off a 15-2 Carolina run, giving the Heels their biggest lead of the evening at 75-68.
Harris finally broke the run with a jumper the next time down, but that would ultimately be as close as Ohio State would get in the final seven minutes, as Ellington drained his third trey of the night the ensuing possession and the Heels would hit enough free throws down the stretch to keep the top ranked Bucks at bay. Ellington finished with 19, and Hansbrough put up 21 points to go along with 14 rebounds, taking advantage of the thin Ohio State front line. Ohio State’s Lewis led all scorers with 30. The victory marked the third consecutive season Carolina had defeated the #1 ranked team in the nation, and was another step toward their ultimate destiny: a national title two seasons later.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Coach Smith’s final game in the building that bears his name was Senior Day ’97. After starting 0-3 in ACC play, Carolina had flipped a switch in mid-January, running off 11 wins in their next 13 games, including the last eight heading into this one. Their last loss? A turnover-filled 80-73 decision at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke had finally snapped a seven game slide against the Tar Heels.
Wake Forest was upset the day prior in Tallahassee, giving the Blue Devils the ACC regular season title and finalizing both teams’ ACC Tournament seeding, taking a tad of the luster off yet another showdown between Top 10 teams. But it was still Carolina-Duke, so it still mattered. Any question of whether it didn’t matter to Duke was answered early, when the Blue Devils jumped out to an 8-2 lead with the seldom-used Carolina seniors were on the floor. Duke would keep the Tar Heels at bay early with a barrage of three point shots, going up as much as eight half way thru the first half. Carolina continued to pound the ball inside to Antawn Jamison, finally getting even on an Ed Cota offensive rebound and putback, then going in front with a classic Cota to Jamison runout bucket with about 5:00 left in the first half.
The run would get to 12-0 before Trajan Langdon hit another three for Duke, the long ball being the only thing keeping Duke from getting blown out. Carolina would stretch the lead out to 14 before Duke hit back to back threes in the final minute, and the Tar Heels took a 49-40 lead into the locker room. Duke would chip away early in the second half, closing within five before a Jamison jam and layup on back to back trips swung the pendulum back in Carolina’s direction. The Blue Devils would punch back, and after Ricky Price converted a three point play with 11:15 to play, Duke found itself back at 61-58. But Carolina was relentless on the boards, ultimately outrebounding Duke 49-18, and it was a rebounding scrum that saw Duke’s Roshawn McLeod get tangled up with teammate Greg Newton and knock the ACC Player of the Year out of the game.
The Heels would take off on another spurt, running the lead out to 82-69 with 5:30 remaining on a “Cota Floata” off a loose ball melee. The Blue Devils had one final push, getting the rare five point play with a Price three and simultaneous loose ball “foul” on Jamison for supposedly sending Langdon to the floor when battling for rebounding position – 17 feet from the hoop – to slash the lead to six. And when Jeff Capel drained ANOTHER three in the corner off a Tar Heel turnover, the lead was suddenly down to four with 1:51 to go. But, within striking distance, Duke would badly miss their final two three point attempts of the afternoon, and Carolina would hit their free throws in the final minute for the final margin.
Duke’s season crumbled after the loss, getting upset, as the top seed, in the ACC quarterfinals by NC State, then getting bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the second round by Providence. Carolina would stay hot, running the table in Greensboro to capture the ACC Tournament, earning the #1 seed in the NCAA East Regional. En route to the Final Four, the Tar Heels made Coach Smith the winningest head coach in college basketball history with their second round win over Colorado in Winston-Salem. The dream died in Indianapolis in a semifinal loss to Arizona.
In a rivalry filled with tense moments, this one was as close as it’s gotten to a full scale brawl since the days of Larry Brown and Art Heyman back in the 60’s. In the course of battle, players may get into it – which we’ll probably see later on this list – but when coaches go face to face ready to throw hands, you obviously have yourself a wild situation.
Carolina was desperately hanging on to a thread of NCAA Tournament hope when Duke came down 15-501 for Senior Day. A year removed from rock bottom, Matt Doherty had brought in a freshman class that was supposed to restore order to the program. Raymond Felton, Sean May, and Rashad McCants came in with high hopes, but after a promising start that included capturing the Preseason NIT crown and a semifinal win over Roy Williams’ final Kansas team, May broke his foot in a loss to Iona at the end of December. Facing the 3rd toughest schedule in the nation, Carolina would flounder around .500 the rest of the season, not quite the turnaround Tar Heels fans were looking for.
It was also a down year for Duke, though not to the depths Carolina had sunk. The 2003 Blue Devils were their only squad between 1998 and 2006 that wouldn’t enter the NCAA Tournament as a #1 seed, but they were still a formidable foe, nevertheless, led by wannabe tough guy, Rutgers transfer Dahntay Jones. Jones had developed a reputation in his two years in Durham, most notably breaking the jaw of Wake’s Justin Gray with a hard screen and dunking on some hapless Virginia defender (recommended for Brad Daugherty's call more than anything else) and doing pushups right next to him after everyone landed on the floor.
So when Jones sent Raymond Felton caroming into the scorer’s table as the two chased a loose ball in the second half, it wasn’t a surprise. And when Jones caught Felton with an “inadvertent” palm to the face when tracking a rebound with a little over eight minutes left, it was par for the course. (Why Jones would throw his hand behind him when the ball was in front of him, I’ll let you decipher.) The officials decided that there was no foul, despite the fact that Felton fell to the floor with a bloody mouth. Doherty walked down to the Duke end of the court, where Felton was still down on the court. The Carolina trainers got the young point guard up and headed back toward the bench on his own power.
Then all hell broke loose.
As Doherty and the Tar Heels began to walk back toward the Carolina bench, Duke assistant and [insert derogatory noun here] Chris Collins said something to McCants. Doherty took offense to another coach talking to his players, particularly in the heat of such a moment, and turned and got in Collins’ face. As the coaches went face to face, Duke benchwarmer Andre Buckner (he of 27 career points) stepped out from the bench and shoved Doherty. McCants and Jawad Williams immediately jumped in between Bucker and Collins and Doherty and the referees pulled the two teams apart as Felton stormed back down the sideline, with the trainer still holding him by the back of his jersey. When the smoke cleared, Jones, Collins, and Buckner were all ejected and Carolina had free throws to shoot.
Oh wait, that’s right, nobody was even T’ed up after all of the shenanigans.
The game tensely continued, but after Duke tied the game with 2:30 to go, Carolina went ahead for good with a McCants three and a Jackie Manuel layup. Duke’s final chance to tie was a half court look from Jones, who sank a 45 footer a half second too late. The shot was waved off and the Heels survived. McCants finished with 26 points, and the wounded Felton turned in a heroic 18-8-10, two assists shy of a triple double.
The teams would meet one week later in the ACC semifinals, where Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins refused to shake Doherty’s hand before the game. The Dookies would win the rematch, and Doherty would be let go at the conclusion of the Tar Heels’ NIT run. Roy Williams would return home within weeks.
Oh, and Dahntay Jones would continue to be a punk his entire NBA career.
State finally makes an appearance on the list, fittingly during the 1988 campaign, the only season in the past 37 years that the Triangle schools finished 1-2-3 alone atop the conference. The Wolfpack came into the Smith Center on a five game winning streak, ranked 16th in the nation, having knocked off Duke at Cameron five days earlier when Chucky Brown picked off Danny Ferry’s outlet pass with seconds remaining. Carolina was 6th in the polls and had shot 66% in a victory over State at Reynolds 77-73 two weeks earlier. The teams were tied at 5-2 in the ACC, and a Carolina win would give the Tar Heels the season sweep and put Carolina in the driver’s seat for the conference crown.
State jumped Carolina from the tip, going up as much as 32-19 in the first half. Young Rodney Monroe would begin to earn is “Ice” moniker, among a trio of Wolfpack players who tallied eight points in the first half, including two threes, as State shot 65% to start the game. Carolina couldn’t get out of its own way, turning the ball over nine times and leaving cheese at the foul line to the tune of 56%. The Wolfpack, however, would go cold in the final five minutes, and the Heels went on a run to end the half, capped off by a Kevin Madden three pointer, drawing Carolina within a point, 35-34, at the break.
The Tar Heels stayed hot out of the locker room, going out front for the first time on a Ranzino Smith jumper from the elbow, then continuing to pour it on. The freshmen would get involved in the second half, with Rick Fox getting a baseline jam to put the Heels up five, Pete Chilcutt getting an offensive board and putback to make it seven, and Fox driving baseline and bringing down the house with a facial on both Brown and Charles Shackleford to make it 49-41, as State scored nine points in about 15 minutes of game time. Jimmy V switched up defenses to try to slow down Carolina, going to a triangle and two (presumably while Carolina assistant Roy Williams was in the bathroom or something) on Jeff Lebo and J.R. Reid.
Lebo wouldn’t let State set their defense, though, finding Chilcutt and Ranzino on outlet passes in transition for layups to push the lead to double digits for the first time. Only long balls from Vinny Del Negro and Chris Corchiani finally stalled the Tar Heel momentum momentarily, but Scott Williams would join in on the fun, also dunking on Shackleford. A long Ranzino jumper makes it 61-53 with about five minutes left and it feels like Carolina’s night. However, with the lead still eight with under three minutes left, the Wolfpack finally put together a big defensive stop, forcing an awful desperation heave by Williams to avoid a shot clock violation, and State’s Brian Howard would get fouled on an offensive rebound on the other end with two minutes to play. Howard missed the first shot, but was apparently the only player on the court who realized it was a 1-and-1 situation and sprinted into the lane and immediately laid it back in for two, leaving everyone in the building confused and dumbfounded.
That bizarre bucket would trigger a State rally. Steve Bucknall continued his struggles at the line, only making one of two freebies, and Monroe answered with a short jumper in traffic to cut the UNC lead to 65-60 with 1:26 to go. Valvano directs his guys to foul Bucknall again, but this time Bucknall hits both. State still comes out a point ahead on the transaction, however, when Monroe drains a three pointer to make it 67-63. Reid is the lucky recipient of the intentional foul this time down, and misses the front end of the 1-and-1, and a baseline jumper by Brown pulls State within two with the shot clock turned off. Before looking to foul, the Wolfpack trapped, and it paid off when Brown jumped in front of a Bucknall pass up top, sending the Wolfpack big man of to the races. Brown missed the layup, but Corchiani was there for the tap in to tie the game with 22 seconds left. Lebo drove the lane to try to win the game, but the amphibious Shackleford swatted his layup out of bounds, and Lebo subsequent three at the horn found nothing but air, sending the game to an improbable overtime, tied at 67.
The teams traded buckets to open OT, Reid scoring on an alleyoop layup from Ranzino, and Brown getting a putback dunk on uncalled offensive goaltending. Williams got a dunk off the secondary break to put Carolina ahead 71-69 with 1:39 to go, and the third Tar Heel freshman, King Rice, would make two plays to seal the game. Valvano made the decision to not put the shaky freshman foul shooter at the line, and Rice made him pay, hitting Reid in the lane for a bucket to put the Heels up four with 35 seconds remaining. Del Negro sank two free throws to keep State within a possession, but Rice dribbled out of the half court trap and found Williams wide open at the basket for the jam to clinch it. Corchiani would hit a meaningless runner at the buzzer for the final tally.
Carolina would go on to win the ACC regular season crown, finishing ahead of runner-up NC State by one game. The Wolfpack wouldn’t get a rematch, falling in the ACC semifinals to Duke, who they’d swept in the regular season, and ultimately getting upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, as a #3 seed, to Murray State. Carolina would reach the West regional final, where their shooting went stone cold, and dropped a 70-52 decision to a loaded Arizona squad in Seattle.
I'll be back in a week or so for the next five games, where we'll find Dookies being Dookies and VInce Carter dunking on fools.
Spoiler: You will get more takes from Mikey on the NWA U.S. Title scene from 1986 thru 1990 than you will on PAC-12 or Big Ten football.