The other three qualifiers — North Carolina, Houston and Louisville — had plenty of Final Four history already. This was the nation’s first extended look at Thompson and Georgetown and especially the freshman Ewing. Thompson had sheltered his young center, allowing little media access. (And why did Ewing wear a T-shirt under his jersey?) The Hoyas were the mystery guest that was also downright mysterious. They darn near won the thing.
Carolina beat Houston in the first semifinal. Houston’s leading scorer that year wasn’t Drexler, who was a sophomore, or the redshirt freshman who wasn’t yet a starter and was then known as “Akeem Abdul Olajuwon.” It was guard Rob Williams, who had among the worst-ever Final Four games. He took eight shots. He made none. He had more turnovers (three) than points (two). The Tar Heels won 68-63 in a game seldom in doubt.
The second semifinal saw nobody shoot well. Between them, Georgetown and Louisville combined for 37 baskets against 36 turnovers over 40 minutes. The Hoyas defended with their usual fury, which the Cardinals came close to matching. Not close enough, though. Final score: Georgetown 50, Louisville 46.
This set up a final between Thompson and his good friend Dean Smith, who’d taken Carolina to six previous Final Fours without winning one. (The 1977 title game, which saw Smith revert to his infernal Four Corners just as the Heels were primed to blow out Marquette, was said to be the one game Smith’s associates never mentioned to him.) The decade of the ’80s was to feature a slew of epic finals. This was among the best.
Carolina’s first four baskets came courtesy of Ewing goaltends. Nonetheless, he’d established himself as an inside presence. Georgetown led by a point at the half. (By then, Ewing had five GTs.) The Heels nosed ahead in the second half, and near the end Smith trotted out the Four Corners, which worked until it stopped working. Eric Smith put the Hoyas ahead with 57 seconds to go. You know the rest.
Jimmy Black found Jordan, then a freshman, on the left wing. Nothing but net, 15 seconds left. The Hoyas hurried to answer. Fred Brown threw the ball straight to Worthy, who played for Carolina. (Hey, he WAS open. In trying to overplay a pass he thought was coming, he moved so quickly that Brown believed he was cutting to get the ball. Which he did.) Worthy missed two free throws, but no matter. Carolina won 63-62.
Smith had his long-sought championship, and the way it happened became a part of Jim Valvano’s stump speech. Then coaching N.C. State, Valvano claimed to have been sitting in the Superdome near some Carolina fans. He said he turned to them and asked, as Brown was moving upcourt, “What do you think?” One Heel backer said, “Dean’ll think of something.” Then Brown passed to the wrong team. The Heel backer poked Valvano on the shoulder. “Told you,” he said.
No. 10: 1979
No. 9: 1991
No. 8: 1968
No. 7: 1982