Column by Ken Cohen
March 22, 2013 On April 3, it will be 30 years since North Carolina State's improbable NCAA championship victory over mighty Houston in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The game-winning basket by Lorenzo Charles is as vivid in my head today as it was watching that night. With the score tied and time running out Dereck Whittenburg hoisted a desperation shot that would have been an air ball. But Charles grabbed the ball as it was about to fall short of the basket and in the same motion put it in the basket for perhaps the most memorable moment in NCAA basketball history.
What was not so clear to me until I watched "Survive and Advance," ESPN's documentary of that NC State team, was the magical ride that led to Charles' frozen-in-time shot. If there was ever a team of destiny, it was the 1983 Wolfpack. Let's recall.
• In one regular-season stretch, the Wolfpack lost six of eight, including back-to-back 18-point losses to unranked teams. They entered the ACC and NCAA tournaments with 10 losses.
• In seven of the team's last nine victories, they trailed in the last minute.
• The Wolfpack needed to win the ACC tournament to even qualify for the NCAAs. And they barely did that, beating Wake Forest 71-70, North Carolina 91-84 in overtime, and Virginia 81-78. In the game against North Carolina, who happened to have a couple of players named Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins on that team, Perkins appeared to make a game-winning shot at the buzzer. The ball literally went in the cylinder, but then popped out to send the game into overtime. The Wolfpack dominated the overtime.
• Counting the ACC tournament, N.C. State managed to beat Ralph Sampson-led Virginia twice in the span of two weeks, a team it had lost to twice during the regular season.
• In the team's opening-round game of the NCAA Tournament against Pepperdine, they trailed by six points with one minute left in regulation. Two times in the closing seconds, Pepperdine's best free throw shooter was sent to the line with a chance to clinch the victory by making the front end of one and ones. Two times he missed the first free throw. And both times NC State converted on the other end to help send the game into overtime. It would take two overtimes before the Wolfpack pulled out the two-point victory.
What's even more amazing about that game is that with eight seconds left and trailing by two, Whittenburg, State's best free throw shooter was at the free-throw line with a chance to tie. Coach Jim Valvano insisted that Cozell McQueen, a left-hander, switch sides of the free throw lane with Charles so McQueen's dominant hand could be on the basket side in case of a miss. Whittenburg missed the free throw, the ball bounced directly to the left hand of McQueen, who tipped it in to send the game to overtime.
• In their second round game against 28-2 UNLV, NC State trailed by 12 points with 11 minutes left and one point with two seconds left. But Thurl Bailey bailed them out, converting a Whittenburg miss as the buzzer sounded to eke out a 71-70 win.
• After a relatively easy win over Utah in the third round, NC State squared off again against Sampson and Virginia in the Elite 8. Trailing by seven points with seven minutes left and one point with 26 points left, Charles was fouled with 23 seconds and the suspect free throw shooter made both foul shots to account for the winning one-point margin.
• In the championship game against Houston, who boasted Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler two of the NBA's 50 greatest players -- NC State found itself in familiar territory, trailing by seven midway through the fourth. But again, they capitalized on good fortune, in this case Houston coach Guy Lewis’ inexplicable decision to hold the ball and take time off the clock. This tactic cramped the fast-paced Cougars’ style and the move backfired. They turned the ball over and NC State hit a couple of long jumpers to get close. Throw in a couple of missed free throws by Houston a common theme throughout State's title run and the stage was set for Charles' infamous layup.
Charles' shot and Valvano's aimless run onto the court are lasting imprints of that 1983 championship season. But the Cardiac Packs' journey was as fascinating and scintillating as any championship run. If you get a chance, make sure to watch "Survive and Advance."
Ken Cohen brings 30 years of publishing experience, many covering sports and working for sports companies, His column, “Further Review” will appear every Friday.