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A Look Back — Acc In The Ncaa Tournament: Wolfpack Believed, And Valvano's Dream Came True

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Jim Sumner, ACC Historian
March 24, 2003 Very few things last forever. The memory of Jim Valvano“Don't give up. Don't ever give up” — is one. The success of the 1983 N.C. State basketball team is another. The coach always will represent persistence, along with a lot of fun, laughs and tears. His 1983 team always will be one of college basketball's best examples of the Cinderella story. Their one magical season together will never be forgotten.

RALEIGH — Over the last two decades, the 1983 N.C. State basketball team seems to have become the official Cinderella team of the NCAA Tournament. Some legends inflate in this period of time. This one is legit.

It certainly is possible to overstate this Cinderella thing. It's not like Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano rounded up these guys at the Y. State was pretty good.

Valvano inherited his three best players from Norm Sloan when he took over the State program in spring 1980. Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg helped State to a 22-10 mark and an NCAA appearance in 1982, then were seniors in 1983. Bailey was an athletic 6-11 forward who could shoot and rebound. Lowe and Whittenburg were guards who had played together at fabled DeMatha High in Maryland and had developed an intimate knowledge of each other's games. Lowe was a prototype point guard, while Whittenburg was a dead-eye outside shooter.

There was more. Freshman Ernie Myers and sophomore Terry Gannon, another long-range bomber, provided depth on the perimeter. Junior center Cozell McQueen and burly sophomore forward Lorenzo Charles helped with rebounding and interior defense. The team had four future NBA players in Bailey, Charles, Lowe and McQueen, plus size, depth, experience and balance. It started the season ranked 16th in the AP poll.

The Pack was led by a young, smart, charismatic, unforgettable coach. You hear about players getting hot and going on a roll. Valvano went on a roll in the 1983 postseason. Almost every decision he made turned out to be the right one.

“From Day One, he talked championships,” Whittenburg said years later. “He talked about dreaming. He said if you believe it's possible, it's possible. He made us believe we could win. We just followed him. He cared about us as people. That's why we had so much passion. At the end of the day, the guy cared about us.”

Early Tests: Rules, Injury

Despite its high national ranking, State started the season a clear third in the ACC, behind defending national champion North Carolina and powerful Virginia, but nobody really knew the pecking order for sure.

The ACC had decided to go with some radical rules for 1983, in an effort to eliminate the slowdowns that were becoming more popular with coaches but less popular with fans. The league came up with two experimental rules, a 30-second shot clock (turned off with four minutes left) and a three-point shot from 17 feet, nine inches. Valvano was an enthusiastic supporter of both rules.

“Ours had become a game of coaches, not players,” Valvano said. “We had taken a beautiful, action-packed thing and made it into a chess match.”

No team took better advantage of the three-point shot. State attempted and made more threes than anyone in the ACC. Gannon made almost 60 percent of his attempts. The rules forced State and the other conference teams to be adaptable. The Wolfpack could play an ACC game with a score of 96-79, then step out of conference for a 45-41 contest.

In fact, State scored less than 50 points three times against non-conference teams. The Pack played a brutal non-conference schedule, including Michigan State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Memphis State, Louisville and West Virginia, which hardened them for March. Nevertheless, State jumped to a 7-1 start before losing 49-42 to Missouri.

The season almost fell apart in the next game, a home match against Virginia. State appeared to be on the way to a huge win over the second-ranked Cavs when Whittenburg landed wrong and broke his right foot. State lost the game and apparently lost Whittenburg for the season.

It took State a few weeks to stabilize. McQueen recalled that “we had to make some changes, but we were pretty confident we could keep it together.” A three-game losing streak dropped the Pack to 2-4 in the ACC and out of the national polls, but State retooled. Valvano plugged Myers into Whittenburg's spot, and the freshman responded with a scoring splurge. State went on a 7-1 run, including a 70-63 win over North Carolina. Whittenburg proved to be a fast healer and came back with three games left in the regular season, having missed 14 games.

“With Whitt back, we were back to our normal routine,” McQueen said. “We thought we could do anything.”

Another Big ACC Hurdle

The seniors closed out their home careers with a 130-89 thumping of Wake Forest. Still, State ended the regular season at 8-6 in the ACC, tied with Maryland for third, four games behind UNC and Virginia. The NCAA Tournament consisted of 48 teams in 1983, and State wasn't going to be one of them without some success in the ACC Tournament.

“Win one game,” Valvano told his team. “One win gets us in.”

As luck would have it, State's first-round matchup was against the same Wake Forest team it had waxed just a few days before. History suggests that's not always good news. Wake led for much of the game, but the Pack escaped a 70-70 tie with a Lowe steal and a Charles free throw.

North Carolina was next. The archrivals fought for 40 minutes and into overtime. Carolina jumped to a 82-76 lead in the extra session when Whittenburg, who had made two of 11 attempts in regulation, exploded with nine points down the stretch. Carolina aided the comeback when Curtis Hunter and Jimmy Braddock missed the first end of one-and-ones. (There was no double bonus in those days.) Lowe led State with 26 points. After the game, Valvano candidly admitted: “There was a time on the bench when we thought we had lost.”

State was beginning to sense that something special was going on.

“No one can tell me that Dereck didn't get hurt for a reason,” Bailey said. “It helped us develop our other players, made them better players. Like Coach V said, it's just destiny.”

The UNC win probably assured State a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but a win over Virginia in the title game still eased a lot of apprehension. Ralph Sampson had an 18-point, nine-rebound first half, and State trailed 40-37 at the intermission. In the second half, Bailey began to double down on Sampson. Valvano was adept at changing defenses.

“The ability to change defenses was one thing we did well,” McQueen said. “We could do so many different things. We would change during the game, and it really bothered other teams.”

It bothered Virginia. Sampson scored only six points after intermission. State made a dozen three-pointers. Gannon made a huge steal on Sampson with State up 78-75, and the Pack made enough free throws to hold off Virginia by an 81-78 score.

“I wouldn't say we were cocky, but nothing intimidated us,” Whittenburg said. “The ACC was the best conference in the country. We played against the No. 1 team in the country six times during the regular season. We weren't scared of anyone outside the ACC. We were battle-tested.”

NCAA: More Close Calls

ACC champion or not, State was assigned to the West Regional and shipped out to Corvallis, Ore. The team's first-round matchup was against Pepperdine, coached by another young up-and-comer, Jim Harrick. Valvano made a prediction: “If we can get by the first one, we'll get better as we go along.”

The Pack almost didn't get by the first one. It wasn't pretty. State missed its first dozen shots from the field, but Pepperdine was almost as bad. The two teams slogged through the quicksand until regulation ended at 47-47. Pepperdine jumped on top early in the overtime, and State's NCAA run was on life support. State was forced to foul. Pepperdine made five consecutive free throws, but State kept up the pressure by scoring on the other end.

Eventually, Dane Suttle — Pepperdine's best player and an 84 percent foul shooter — missed the first end of a pair of one-and-ones and State pounced. It was 59-57 when Whittenburg went to the foul line with seconds left. Whittenburg was an 80 percent foul shooter, but Valvano had a hunch. He moved McQueen into position to rebound a potential miss. Sure enough, Whittenburg missed, McQueen rebounded and his follow shot dropped through after bouncing on the rim. State won 69-67 in double overtime.

“I can still hear Jimmy Valvano saying it in my head right now,” Whittenburg said in March, as he led his Wagner team into this year's NCAA Tournament. “ëSurvive and advance. Survive and advance.'”

The next matchup was against sixth-ranked UNLV. The Rebels were led by All-America forward Sidney Green, who got everyone's attention prior to the game when he announced: “I'm not impressed with Bailey. I'm not worried about him.”

Green backed up his big talk with 27 points and 10 rebounds, but Bailey matched him with 25 points and nine rebounds. Vegas led by six at the half, a dozen with eight minutes left. State was in familiar waters, and again the Pack clawed back. A Bailey jumper cut the lead to 70-69 with 32 seconds left. State fouled Eldridge Hudson, who missed his free throw. Valvano elected not to call a timeout. (“We were on a roll,” he said.) State pushed the ball upcourt, and Whittenburg missed a long jump shot. Bailey missed a follow, then converted a tap-in for the 71-70 win. Lowe noted that the team “had great confidence in ourselves. It just seems that destiny is with us.”

N.C. State advanced to the Sweet 16 in Ogden, Utah, against local favorite Utah. State won 75-56, although the game wasn't as one-sided as the final score suggested. State led by only four at intermission and didn't break open the game until late. Whittenburg led the winners with 27 points, as the Pack made 28 of 41 field goal attempts.

“I thought they were a good ballclub,” Utah coach Jerry Pimm said, “but I didn't think they were this good.”

The win matched State against Virginia, a strange pairing of two ACC teams meeting in a regional final in the distant Utah mountains. Sampson, the three-time national player of the year, needed only an NCAA title to cap off his career, and few observers gave State much of a chance to stop him. Virginia led much of the way, including 31-21 in the first half, when State switched from zone to a man-to-man.

Valvano's move worked. Whittenburg tied the score at 61. Once more, State fouled on purpose. Virginia guard Othell Wilson, a 72 percent foul shooter, made the first but missed the second. Whittenburg got the ball inside to Charles, who was fouled by Sampson. After a timeout, Charles coolly sank both free throws, giving State the 63-62 lead. Charles said later: “I was just trying to think I was in practice, that I was shooting without the crowd.”

Virginia still had a chance to win. Valvano later wrote: “If Sampson had beat us, I would have gone out and put a bullet through my brain.” State collapsed inside on the big guy and dared someone else to beat them. Tim Mullen, who was coming off an injury and had hardly played, missed a jumper, Wilson missed a

Perfect Plan For Houston

The 1983 Final Four, held in Albuquerque, N.M., offered a good argument for re-seeding. On one side of the bracket were a pair of awe-inspiring dunk machines, top-ranked Houston and second-ranked Louisville. The other side consisted of the afterthoughts, State and Georgia, a couple of Cinderellas waiting for the clock to strike midnight.

Houston disappointed no one, defeating Louisville 94-81. The State-Georgia game was something of a reversal. This time it was Valvano's guys who jumped to the big lead, 33-22 at the half, 59-41 with six minutes left. State went into cruise control and had to hold off a late Georgia rally with some clutch foul shooting for a 67-60 win. Bailey and Whittenburg led State with 20 points apiece, but McQueen was the unsung hero, with 13 rebounds and four blocked shots against the quick but short Bulldogs.

The mythology of the State-Houston title game maintains that nobody gave State a chance. This is an exaggeration. Standout Houston center Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon expressed some concern when he stated, “I think we have to play above the rim to win the ball game.” Houston was a seven-point favorite, a substantial margin for a title game but not exactly David versus Goliath.

Certainly, Valvano went along with it, telling writers that Houston was “absolutely awesome. I missed the first half (of the Louisville game), and now I wished I had missed the second.” He joked that even his mother was taking Houston. But he was telling McQueen and his teammates something else: “We're going to play our game. We're not backing down from them. We're going after them.”

The coach had a receptive audience in the Wolfpack locker room. State seethed at its underdog status. After all, the Pack had two wins over North Carolina, two wins over Virginia and a win over UNLV, all teams that had been ranked No. 1 at one point during the season. The players were loose, confident and prepared.

Valvano's game plan was to spread the floor, run clock, control tempo, take good shots, frustrate the Cougars. In other words, keep them below the rim. Best of all, Houston was lousy at the foul line, barely breaking the 60 percent mark on the season. Valvano would take advantage of this if the Pack could just stay close.

“If the score is 100-to-something, we're not going to win the game,” Valvano said. “But if it's in the 50s…”

The game plan was well-conceived and well-executed. The Wolfpack committed only six turnovers, none by Lowe, who handled the ball almost constantly. McQueen pulled down a dozen rebounds. Bailey was hot early. Everybody did his job, at least for a half. State led 33-25 after 20 minutes.

“It's a dream,” Valvano said later. “That's what I told the players at halftime, that they were 20 minutes away from a dream. I had the dream for 16 years as a coach, and they had it all their years in college.”

Still, it almost ended badly. Houston was too good to go down without a fight. The Cougars regrouped and exploded after intermission with a 17-2 run, while State went ice cold. Olajuwon, who ended the game with 20 points and 18 rebounds, was dominating both ends of the court.

Then Houston coach Guy Lewis inadvertently threw State a lifeline. He decided to slow it down — slow it down, with a team that excelled at up-tempo basketball, a team that was on a roll and had its opponent on the ropes, and most of all, a team that couldn't shot free throws.

“I have a lot of confidence in that (slow-down) offense,” Lewis said. “I thought it could get us layups.”

“I felt that we should have kept playing the way we were playing,” Houston forward Larry Micheaux said. “Our game is to get up and down the door and dunk the ball.”

“I was a little surprised,” Valvano said. “They had been on quite a roll. It wasn't like there were four or five minutes left. There was much more. I'm not sure what goes through coaches' heads.”

Final Seconds Made History

One final time, as they had done repeatedly for the last month, the State players fought back. Houston missed some foul shots; the Cougars finished 10-19 for the game. Whittenburg made some baskets. His last two field goals tied the game at 52, with a little more than a minute to go. Everyone knew what State would do next.

“We knew we had to slow the tempo,” Valvano said. “We tried to give no transition baskets and no dunks. … Then we knew they're not a particularly good foul shooting team, so we figured we'd try to make 'em beat us at the foul line.”

Whittenburg fouled Houston freshman Alvin Franklin. He missed and State held the ball for the last shot. It was a harrowing final minute. State spread the court against a team that was quick and aggressive and trapped and chased all over the floor. The Cougars almost forced a turnover a half-dozen times. If Benny Anders was an inch longer, fans would have been watching his game-winning breakaway dunk for the last 20 years.

Instead, fans have been watching Charles' game-winning dunk — off a “pass” from Whittenburg — for 20 years. How ironic that a Houston team that lived by the dunk and redefined notions of what a team could accomplish above the rim would lose on somebody else's dunk, while all of its leapers stood anchored to the floor.

“I saw Lorenzo open,” joked Whittenburg in 1983. He still sticks to this story, with a big smile, 20 years later. “I gave him that pass. That's the way we diagrammed it, and we were happy with the shot we got out of it.”

In 1983, Whittenburg told a different version to some reporters: “I was looking up for a clock. I couldn't find it. So the only thing I thought about was taking a shot at the basket. I didn't realize how far out I was, or where I was. I just wanted to get it to the basket. I was looking for it to go in.”

“I knew when Whit let the shot go that it was short,” Charles said. “I didn't know where Akeem was, just that he was behind me. I knew I was the closest to the basketball. I just went up and dunked it.”

“You need luck in a national tournament, being in the right place at the right time,” Valvano said. “Fortunately, we got the Hail Mary shot to the right spot.”

In the end, N.C. State won nine straight must-win games to capture the title, despite being the clear underdogs in five of them and facing significant deficits in most of them. Seven games went to the wire. Two went into overtime. Any number of opponents could have ended State's season with a clutch foul shot or a clutch defensive stop, but none did. Perhaps it was fate, or destiny, or luck, or divine intervention. But at the end, it was always State that made the big shot, the big steal, the big rebound.

“We worked hard,” Bailey said. “We've been through a lot. Some people say we're a team of destiny. Some say God is on our side. I believe He is.”

“This is a dream for me and my players,” Valvano said. “It's so awesome. I'm almost speechless. I have no funny lines. It's just great to be a part of a national championship team.”

March Madness provides perhaps the most seductive dream in American sports. Forget about January. Forget about seedings or rankings. Get hot, run the table, survive and advance, and you can be national champions. It doesn't happen to underdogs often, but the 1983 N.C. State team proved it can happen and does happen.

There will be other wonderful stories, but college basketball fans will be seeing Charles redirect Whittenburg's errant heave into the basket for at least another 20 years … and probably many more.

Jim Sumner is Curator of Sports and Historian at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh and a freelance writer. He is the author of two books and numerous articles on southern sports history. He lives in Raleigh.