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Archive for Sunday, March 16, 2003

N.C. State’s surprise run impressive 20 years later

Wolfpack won ACC, then NCAA crown

March 16, 2003

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Every year, Selection Sunday finds teams perched precariously on the NCAA Tournament bubble, also-rans hoping the selection committee finds room for them.

Twenty years ago, North Carolina State arrived at the ACC tournament in just that condition, equipped with a 17-10 record, its NCAA prospects shaky, considering only 48 teams were invited in those days.

"We played the No. 1 team six times that season," said Dereck Whittenburg, then N.C. State's shooting guard and now coach at Wagner College. "We played North Carolina with Michael Jordan. We played Virginia with Ralph Sampson."

The ACC was loaded, and N.C. State was not. The Wolfpack had a nice team led by Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe in the backcourt. Coach Jim Valvano convinced them that they were more than the sum of their parts.

"Win one game," Valvano told his team on the eve of the ACC tournament. "One win gets us in."

Instead, they won the whole thing, beating Wake Forest by one point in the opener, then North Carolina in overtime and Virginia by three to become unlikely ACC champs and get an automatic NCAA berth.

In the tournament, it was more of the same. They opened with a double overtime victory over Pepperdine and followed that with one-point wins over UNLV and Virginia. The Wolfpack were in the Final Four.

Valvano -- who would die of cancer in 1993 -- offered insight to his team, homilies such as "God must love ordinary people; he made so many of us. And sometimes, ordinary people can do extraordinary things."

Never more than in the Final Four 20 years ago.

The feeling was there was no way Valvano's team could stay with Houston's high-wire act, consisting of Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the rest of Phi Slamma Jama.

But the Wolfpack had other ideas. At halftime, N.C. State led 33-25. In the dressing room, Valvano offered no Xs and Os, no deep strategy to pull off the upset.

"All he said was, 'Twenty more minutes to make the dream come true,"' Whittenburg said.

In the final minute of the game, the score was tied at 52.

"The huddle was chaotic," Whittenburg remembered. With the shot clock still three years away, N.C. State had all kinds of time for one shot to win it.

"They came out in a 1-3-1 trap," Whittenburg said. "We had no idea what to do. We just passed the ball. They could have stolen it a couple of times."

The last time was when Benny Anders got his hand on the final pass to Whittenburg. For a moment, the ball was free. Then Whittenburg grabbed it with two hands and little time to do anything but shoot.

"They didn't recruit me to pass," he said.

Thirty-five feet from the basket, the shooting guard shot.

Airball!

"I never thought it was going to be short," Whittenburg said. "I thought it was going in. I thought I was in range."

Under the basket, Lorenzo Charles reacted immediately, snatching the ball and stuffing it in -- a highlight for the ages.

Final score: North Carolina State 54, Houston 52.

In a moment, the court became bedlam, players hugging each other, Valvano racing around, looking for somebody to grab. N.C. State had pulled off a miracle.

Sometimes, ordinary people do extraordinary things.

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