This season will mark the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center. The "Student Activities" portion of the name gets glossed over to this day, but the man for whom the building was named insisted that the facility was for the students at UNC. No matter what Coach Smith wanted, everyone, Carolina fans or otherwise, knows the arena to this day by its nickname: the Dean Dome.
The Smith Center has been home to 10 ACC regular season champions, 7 ACC Tournament Champions, 9 Final Four squads, and 3 NCAA Champions. It has seen its share of great basketball since it opened January 18, 1986. The Tar Heels are 363-66 in nearly thirty years at the Dean Dome, and I've taken a look at all of them to find the thirty best Carolina games ever played in the building.
This has been a ridiculously fun project to undertake, and I find it interesting how some games are so easily accessible, while others are curiously difficult to find anecdotes and/or video online. You may notice some differences in the game details with direct correlation to such information. I will roll out the full list in parts over the next month, heading into the tip off of the 2015-16 Carolina basketball season. But before we get too far, here are a few games that didn't make the cut:
I looked at stakes, quality of competition, conference relevancy, how memorable the finish was, and what the game meant to that particular Carolina team. It wasn't an exact science, but I think the results were ultimately pretty fair. There were a few surprises, and, as you'll see in this portion of the list, a few Tar Heels losses, as well. Jump Around and let's get this list going...
The first game on our list prominently features one of my all-time favorite Tar Heels: Carlisle, Pennsylvania’s Jeff Lebo. Lebo had inherited ballhandling duties from graduating All-American Kenny Smith, the engine that made the tremendously talented ’87 squad click. Lebo wasn’t a natural point guard, but rather a long distance sniper. The shooting guard-turned-point guard put it all together in a stone cold closeout of Georgia Tech on this Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill.
Carolina tied up what had been a nip and tuck contest at 58 on a J.R. Reid spinning one hander in the paint with 6:00 remaining. The Jackets answered with three quick buckets: a Duane Ferrell tap in, a Brian Oliver tap in off a turnover and runout, and another Ferrell bucket in traffic to give Tech a six point lead with four minutes and change to go. Then Lebo took complete control of the game, starting with a three from the left wing to draw Carolina back to 64-61. Little did Tech know what was coming.
After Scott Williams rebounded a Tom Hammonds miss, Lebo drove the lane and dished it back out, then quietly slipped to the left corner, and Ranzino Smith made the extra pass to Lebo, who drained the three from the corner to tie the game. Timeout Jackets. Oliver sank two free throws to put Georgia Tech back in front, but then Lebo ran a give and go out of a baseline inbound set with Williams and the junior guard sank his third consecutive three pointer, this one right in front of the Carolina bench, giving the Heels a 67-66 lead.
Tech refused to go away quietly, and Hammonds converted a three point play to put the Jackets back up by two with two minutes to play. But after Tech fouled Reid, Lebo and Williams ran the exact same inbound play, this time with a pick from Ranzino, and Lebo drained another three, in the same spot in front of the bench to put Carolina back on top with 1:35 to go. Tech threw another haymaker, this one an Oliver jumper from the top of the key, with hand in face, to give the Jackets the lead yet again with one minute to play. Timeout Carolina.
Lebo took the inbound pass and left it for Williams at the top of the key, then drifted back toward the bench, where Williams found him with a skip pass over the defense, and Lebo sank his fifth straight three pointer, his third straight from the bench, putting the Tar Heels ahead 73-71 with 45 seconds left. The Yellow Jackets had the opportunity to take the final shot to tie or win the game, but nothing opened up, forcing Bobby Cremins to call for time with just five seconds left. After Rick Fox knocked the first inbound pass out of bounds, Fox got his hand on the second inbound pass, sending it caroming off Williams’ chest. Williams leapt out of bounds and saved the ball between his legs right to Lebo, fittingly, as time expired. If you weren’t counting, Lebo sank three pointers on five consecutive possessions, the final five of the contest, to seal the game for Carolina – just a tremendous performance.
The first of several trademark Carolina comebacks on the list, this one came days after the Heels pulled one of the biggest upsets in Smith Center history – a game which, obviously, appears much higher on this list. The Tar Heels were emotionally spent coming into this one, and it showed, as the Demon Deacons raced out to a 22 point lead in the first eleven minutes, bookended by a 180 jam by Rodney Rogers and a huge Trelanne Owens dunk, spotting Wake to a 32-10 lead.
Carolina managed to whittle the deficit to 48-33 at the half, but could only chip another four points off that margin over the ensuing 14 minutes, and senior Hubert Davis hit two free throws to cut the Deacons’ lead to 75-66 with six minutes to play. The game finally turned on the next Wake possession as Owens went up for a rebound and possible putback, but held onto the rim, playground style, in doing so, drawing a pretty easy technical foul. Davis hit two more freebies, and then Derrick Phelps got away on a runout and (you’re not gonna believe this) got taken out hard as he went up by Owens, who made a legit play on the ball, but sent Phelps flying off balance and hard to the floor. Phelps left the game, leaving Henrik Rodl to take, and make, both free throws, bringing the Tar Heels within five points with plenty of time left.
Carolina would pull closer on Davis jumper with 3:30 to go, giving Hubert a career high 30 on the afternoon, and Kevin Salvadori would sink a beautiful turnaround baseline jumper moments later to cut what had been a 22 point lead down to 75-74, capping off a 10-0 run. Wake finally answered with a three point play by Chris King, but Carolina kept the Smith Center in a frenzy as Brian Reese drove the left baseline for a big dunk in traffic. Then Reese forced a Wake turnover, giving Carolina the ball back with a chance to tie or take the lead, but the Heels turned it over trying to feed Eric Montross. After George Lynch fouled out of the game the next time down, Phelps returned to the game, and Rogers, with chants of “Roddddd-neeeey” echoing thru the Dean Dome, missed both free throws. Donald Williams would then get whistled for a weak offensive foul on a scrum that probably should’ve been a jump ball.
Wake, with another chance to go up two possessions, bricked again, and Pat Sullivan got hacked in the paint with 36 seconds left. Two free throws later, the game was tied. The Deacons had the ball, one shot to win or go to overtime – Carolina had a foul to give, and used it to set up the trap. Wake wasn’t ready for it, and called timeout, and they still weren’t completely prepared for it, because on the ensuing play, Reese and a gang of Tar Heels rushed to trap again at the baseline, and Phelps came up with the ball with 15 seconds to go. Dean wanted time to set up the final shot, and Reese took the inbound pass beyond half court and drove straight to the hoop. The runner rimmed off, but the rebound went right back to Reese in the middle of the paint, and he gathered the ball toward the right wing and drained a 15 footer to win the game as time expired, capping off another patented Dean Smith comeback.
P.S. If anyone knows why Carolina shot at the opposite end of where they usually do in this game, let me know.
Oddly enough, as important this game would be to some teams, finding much about it online 27 years later is quite difficult. It’s one of the last Carolina/Duke games of which I have no personal recollection, and given the outcome, that’s probably a good thing. Second ranked Carolina entered the game 13-1, its only defeat coming in Nashville to Vanderbilt 78-76, and had only lost once in its new digs since opening two season prior. Duke was ranked ninth, 10-2, and was dealing with local buzz about its defensive prowess, or lackthereof, particularly being tasked with slowing down hot Carolina shooting. Well, the Blue Devils showed up this night, shutting down the Tar Heels’ long distance touch, conceding 27 points inside to J.R. Reid. Carolina found itself down 11 point with 13 minutes to play and staged a rally, holding Duke to no field goals over the final seven minutes of the game. But the Heels missed four shots that could’ve won the game in the final 30 seconds, including Jeff Lebo’s three from the corner at the buzzer, as Duke’s Robert Brickey got a hand on it, giving Duke the upset win, only Carolina’s second loss ever at the Smith Center. It would be the first of three Duke wins over UNC in 1988, setting the stage for the rivalry to explode in ’89, and speaking of which…
“J.R. Can’t Reid.”
That was the storyline that reignited the smoldering Carolina-Duke rivalry in the late 80’s. The Heels had taken 14 of the 19 meetings between the two schools in the 80’s thru the end of the 1987 season, but it was clear that Duke was poising the most serious long-term run at Carolina’s ACC dominance in the Dean Smith era, especially after Duke swept the series in ’88, not just the two regular season games, but also tripping up the Tar Heels for the ACC Tournament crown - three straight wins in the rivalry that sent shock waves thru Tobacco Road. Fresh off their second Final Four in three seasons, the Blue Devils’ clout was growing nationally, as was that of their student section: the Cameron Crazies. Sure, they’ve become a caricature of themselves now, but in the late 80’s, the Crazies were legitimately the most venomous fans in all of the land, exemplified in a sign held up at Cameron Indoor Stadium during the first meeting of the season reading “J.R. Can’t Reid.” It was gasoline on the fire, as Dean took greatest offense to opposing fans’ (especially those of the team down the road) calling out the academics of his players. Carolina blew out Duke in Durham, ending Duke’s winning streak in the series, but the issue lingered over the remainder of the season like a lurking storm cloud, as Reid’s statistics were seen by the media as slipping, despite Carolina’s gaudy win-loss record, and stories emerged (exaggerated to whatever extent) of discontent in the Heels’ locker room.
The rematch came on Senior Day for a hobbled Jeff Lebo, playing with a bum ankle, scoresheet stuffer Steve Bucknall, and the class of ’89, with Duke trying to spoil Carolina’s attempt at claiming half of the conference regular season title. Of course, a tie for first place would’ve already been clinched had the Heels put away Georgia Tech in Atlanta days before, but the Dennis Scott Game happened, leaving fifth ranked Carolina having to fend off ninth ranked Duke. The Heels led for most of the first half, sparked by Rick Fox’s energy off the bench, but Duke finally edged out front on a Clay Buckley bucket with 4:30 to go in the first half. Duke wouldn’t get too far away, and Bucknall would drive for a layup at the horn to send the contest into the half with Duke holding a 41-39 lead.
Duke would stretch the lead out to seven early in the second half, but after a Robert Brickey jam was waved off on traveling, the Heels turned the tide. Two free throws by Lebo gave Carolina its first lead of the half, and Duke called for time after Pete Chilcutt got a big dunk to push UNC’s lead out to 57-53 with 12:30 remaining. Ultimately, the Heels would put together a 13-2 run to go ahead 70-60, but a cheap reach-in foul called on King Rice muffled the crowd, and Quin Snyder snapped the run with a three to pull the Devils within seven with seven minutes to play. That started an 8-0 run for Duke, but when Greg Koubek got the ball down low for what looked like a sure layup, Kevin Madden stuffed him from behind, and Fox got a tip in on the other end to give Carolina a little breathing room, 72-68, with just over four minutes to go.
But, of all the guys, it would be Danny Ferry to hit the big shot for Duke, sinking a high arcing corner three to give the lead back to Duke with 3:00 left. Bucknall would tie the game back up at 75 with two free throws, but Snyder answered again with another three, and Duke would extend the lead to five after an offensive foul on Madden. After Bucknall and Ferry exchanged buckets, Madden would use his ample posterior to make some room on a drop step and get a lay in to make it 82-79 Duke with 1:43 to go. Phil Henderson and Bucknall would trade 1 for 2’s from the stripe, and Brickey would get the roll on the front end of a 1-and-1 and sink the second one to press Duke’s lead back to five with a minute to play.
Bucknall would hit a hurried runner, only to see Henderson slip out on the Hail Mary pass to keep Duke’s lead at 87-82, which was then topped by Fox hitting a huge three from near the top of the key to cut the margin to two. Inexplicably, Ferry tripped over his own feet on the inbound pass, earning a whistle for traveling and giving the ball back to UNC with a chance to tie or take the lead. But Lebo’s entry pass to Reid would be tipped away. Snyder missed the front end, giving Carolina another shot, but this time it was Rice’s pass that got tipped away, and Koubek’s attempt to feed Henderson on the fastbreak would be deflected, and off Rice’s foot out of bounds by the Duke bench. But each team wasn’t finished trying to give the game away, as Ferry’s long pass into the backcourt went over Snyder’s head, and Rice scooped it up and went to the rim, fouled by Snyder as the ball rolled off the rim. Despite Dean’s pleas for an intentional foul, Rice, an 81% shooter, was left with two pressure packed free throws to tie the game with three seconds remaining. The first one rattled home; the second one did not, rebounded by Brickey, who would hit his first free throw on the other end, then intentionally miss the second, leaving the Heels to do nothing but heave an 80 footer, which sailed wide at the buzzer, giving NC State the conference title
Carolina, of course, would famously get revenge and the season series one week later in Atlanta in arguably the greatest ACC Final of the modern era, 77-74, when Duke had to heave a prayer the length of the court, and Ferry’s try perilously clanged off the front of the rim. State became the first one seed to lose in the ACC quarters.
The Len Bias Game.
Four words, and nothing else needs to be said. Singlehandedly, on a Thursday night in February, a manchild went into the brand spanking new Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center and knocked off the 25-1, top ranked all season, North Carolina Tar Heels. This game is talked about 29 years later, and it’s probably quite too low on this list. There was a method to the madness, but what the method may not have accounted for was a legacy-defining game by an opposing player. That’s precisely what this game was for Len Bias.
This was a dominant Carolina team, its only blemish to date being a loss to Virginia in Charlottesville. The Heels had ascended to the top of the polls in the second week of the season and had stayed there all year. Kenny Smith, who somehow over the years has become maybe the most underrated player in school history, ran point and had all sorts of weapons at his disposal. Steve Hale, a dude who was freakishly athletic for an unassuming white guy with classic 80’s hair, was all over the place, on the give and go, making defensive plays on Bias, and doing a little bit of everything. They also had the soon-to-be overall #1 pick in the NBA Draft, Brad Daugherty, who put up 20 points and change in the game. All-ACC Joe Wolf could always be trusted to get buckets. And freshman Jeff Lebo was coming off the bench and doing all of the little things.
None of them were Bias.
Bias was persistent on the offensive end, carrying the Terps for long stretches, and looking like Lebron James showed up to the Dean Dome in a time machine. The gap in athletic ability between him and everyone else on the court was, and is to this day, mindboggling. He put up 14 in the first half, and he and the Terps managed to get to the free throw line enough (12/12 in the first half) to keep the game close, 37-32, thru 20 minutes.
A Smith jumper from the free throw line pushed Carolina’s lead to 48-40 about five minutes into the second half, but Bias kept plugging away, getting a reverse layup down the baseline to stem one Tar Heel charge, ultimately bringing Maryland to a 52-52 tie. As the ten minute mark passed, Carolina looked to go for the kill, running off a 16-7 spurt sparked by jumpers from Smith and a one handed jam from Daugherty, with Bias doing everything he could to keep the Terps close, getting back to the free throw line again, and then hitting a Duncan-esque bank shot from 14 feet. But free throws from Daugherty put the Heels ahead 68-59 with 3:00 left.
Then it happened, the signature moment of Len Bias’ career and the ultimate “what might’ve been” snapshot of a tragic character’s fate. Bias rose up (seriously, go watch the guy’s jumper) and sank an 18 footer, then streaked in like a flash of lightning, stealing the inbound pass and throwing down a 180 jam all in one motion. It’s one of the best plays you’ll ever see by any basketball player who has ever lived. And this guy just did it in a raucous environment against the #1 team in the nation.
Suddenly, it’s a five point game, and Daugherty threw it away, giving Jeff Baxter a runout for a finger roll, cutting the Carolina lead to three, the Terps having scored six points in twelve seconds. Even Four Corners wouldn’t work now, as Hale missed a cutting layup. Finally, Bias’ aggressiveness gets the better of him, as Lebo held his ground and drew a charge in the lane, but he’d only make one of two from the line, making the score 69-65 with a minute to go. Bias came back again, this time with a contested 20 footer to cut the deficit to two, but Carolina broke the press and after Lefty Drissell finally realized there wasn’t enough difference between the shot clock and the game clock to get a stop and a shot, so the Terps sent Smith, and 80% shooter, back to the line for a 1-and-1 with nine seconds left. Mike Patrick and Dan Bonner did everything but go and stand in front of Smith with a broom, and sure enough, Smith missed the front end, giving Maryland the chance to tie, and while Bias never touched the ball, Baxter sank a 20 footer with two seconds left to force overtime.
The extra session began sloppy, and Hale found Wolf on a drive for a layup to push Carolina in front 72-71 with 2:00 remaining. Bias answered with a double pump jumper in traffic, the 34th and 35th points of his evening, and Smith’s jumper to reclaim the lead rattled off. Carolina turned up the defensive pressure, resulting in a loose ball near midcourt. As Hale and Bias went down to the floor for the ball, Hale collided awkwardly with Bias’ left knee, and the officials stopped the game to allow Hale to get help from the trainer. Lefty wasn’t happy with Carolina being granted time when Maryland had possession, and sure enough, Daugherty stole in the inbound pass with 58 seconds left, setting up UNC for a shot to take the lead and maybe win the game. Bias had other ideas.
Hale would re-enter the game (which is crazy considering we’d find out later he had a punctured lung) and the game wound up in Smith hands, and the junior from Queens drove the lane, only to get swatted away by Bias. Keith Gatlin would sink two free throws, then successfully run a “throw it off the opponent’s back” inbound play for an easy layup after a final Heels turnover, supplying the Terps with the winning margin of 77-72.
Bias’ 35 points are still an ACC record for an opponent in the Smith Center, tied just last season by Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes. The only opposing player to score more than Bias? LaSalle’s Lionel Simmons, who rang up 37 in a game two years later.
I'll have the next five games on the list next week, and you can believe that there aren't many more Carolina losses on this list.
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.