Through the last day of January, it had been a season that was particularly forgettable.
At the halfway point of that 1996-97 season – back when there was still a true halfway point – we were 0-8 in the conference, which in all fairness wasn’t entirely unexpected. We had played strikingly close games against two Top 5 teams, having lost in early December at Reynolds to Wake 53-45 and in early January in Chapel Hill 59-56. Otherwise, we had been utterly steamrolled by just about everyone else in the ACC.
The nuances that defined that season are conspicuously similar to the ones that have left their impression on this one. In ’97 we were feeling out a first-year coach with a new offensive system. In Sendek’s case it was ever-deliberate – albeit entirely pragmatic under those circumstances – while in Lowe’s case, the antithesis. Moreover, the starting five could have most accurately been described as outmatched with a bench that could just barely be described as thin. There had been no real reason for expecting this to change; we hadn’t finished a season above .500 since 1991 and we had become perennial locks for the tournament’s play-in game.
1997 had become without question one of the toughest ever ACC seasons top-to-bottom, perhaps only second to this season. Carolina, with Jamison, Carter, and Cota; Wake, with Duncan and Rutland; Maryland, with Booth and Profit; and Duke, with Langdon, Capel, and McLeod, were each considered Final Four contenders. Virginia, with Alexander, Nolan and Staples (the ACC’s best shooting guard in my lifetime prior to Redick) and Clemson, with Buckner and McIntyre, were both very good teams that anchored the middle of the standings.
Meanwhile, we had been starting Clint Harrison (6’4”), Jeremy Hyatt (6’6”), Ishua Benjamin (6’5”), Danny Strong (6’6”), and Damon Thornton (6’8”); Justin Gainey (6’0”) was the bench. On the last day of January it had become a very real possibility this would become a 16-loss team. Quite simply, we were a perpetually overmatched, undersized team. But we had oversized heart and against all odds, this team refused to go out with a whimper.
Instead, we plunged headlong with a bang into February, scoring a hard-fought 58-54 home win over then Top 5 Clemson – Rick Barnes’ strongest Clemson team, their season ended in the Sweet 16 in two overtimes to Minnesota, who in turn eventually lost to Kentucky in the Final Four. Our obstinate tempo had, amazingly enough, forced Clemson’s high-octane offense out of its rhythm.
We had our first victory and the fun was just beginning.
Two weeks later we went to Winston-Salem and beat #2 Wake Forest 60-59 in overtime. Trailing by two at the end of regulation, Gainey went for the steal at mid-court against Rutland rather than the foul and managed to not only take away the ball, but slip loose for the game-tying lay up. I remember very vividly my mom chiding me to calm down because I’d had knee surgery only a few days before, and she was worried I’d tear out my staples (I was already on dangerously thin ice for “accidentally” kicking a hole in the foyer wall after losing to Carolina a month earlier).
Of course, Wake would turn out to be just another underachieving Dave Odom team – with Duncan, one of the top three ACC players all-time, supported by a potent backcourt of Rutland and Braswell, they had cruised through mid-February but would eventually lose to Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
State, on the other hand, had just begun to roll, despite a potentially demoralizing setback. In early February, Thornton had arguably been the front-runner for the ACC rookie of the year. But as March rolled around, he was out with a season-ending hip injury (Ed Cota eventually received the honor). Luke Buffom stepped up and admirably filled Thornton’s absence with a solid 15 minutes per game off the bench while Gainey, now a starter, had quickly climbed the steepest and least-forgiving learning curve of a true freshman point guard in the ACC.
More importantly, we were infuriating very good teams that relied on up-tempo, finesse styles of play by requiring their patience on defense while we very intently exploited breakdowns caused by their lack thereof. The pressing and trapping that had dismantled us in January had become largely ineffective due to the smart, often seamless play of five interchangeable parts (let it go, just let it go). Ironically enough, we were winning because we were taking any and all athleticism out of the game – we were doing nothing more impressive than lulling opponents into submission.
But it was working.
As ridiculous as it might have seemed, we had earned an eight-seed in the ACC tournament with consecutive blowout wins over Georgia Tech and Florida State to end the regular season at a suddenly-respectable 4-12. We had split February and that, in itself, was quite impressive.
Then the real fun began.
On March 6 of that year, I was a 17 year old high school senior who’d already been accepted into State’s prestigious and highly-competitive First Year College program. There had never been any doubt where I was going to college; in fact, I’d always been very keenly aware of just how little I could actually do in high school and still get into State. I’m not particularly proud of that; just that was a truly innocent time when college was simply my ticket into Reynolds Coliseum.
That Thursday morning at school I made the boldest prediction based on nothing more than an unfounded cliché: we would win the ACC tournament if for no other reason than it’s tough to beat a team in the ACC three times in a season. Fact was, once we got past Georgia Tech in the play-in game, any of our potential pairings would likely be against teams that had swept the regular season series from us.
That night in Greensboro we crushed Tech 60-45 in what would become Cremins’ last real chance as coach in Atlanta. Bring on the one-seed, Duke.
As usual, I was “sick” on ACC Tournament Friday. In elementary school, we had watched the games in class, which had been largely acceptable, if not wholly tolerable, but somewhere along the way that beautiful tradition had been banned. In protest, I decided to no longer attend school on ACC Friday – five years out of college and I still take off that holiest day of the college basketball season. Pig Pickin!
At tip-off on that Friday, no eight-seed had ever advanced to Saturday and early in that game it didn’t appear it would happen that year, either. Duke jumped out to a huge 16-point lead, but behind the scrappy play of Hyatt and Strong, in addition to Harrison’s usual solid play, we had cut that lead by 10 to a manageable six by halftime. I don’t recall that we actually outplayed Duke in the second half; I just think we annoyed them into complete frustration. We didn’t give them any open looks, we limited their penetration, and most importantly, we stayed almost even on the boards, limiting their second-chance opportunities. Every basket would prove to count.
We held them to 29 points in the second half and won 66-60, pulling off the biggest tournament upset in ACC history. It’s that March storyline that every true fan loves, that One Shining Moment. The mighty one-seed had fallen, while on rolled lowly State.
Saturday we beat the four-seed Maryland 65-58 in much the same way; we simply overwhelmed them with our sheer stubbornness. It was a battle tip-to-horn, but Gary Williams would have to wait at least one more year to play for his first ACC championship.
Regrettably, those of us too young to remember 1974 and who know of 1983 and 1987 only through faded childhood memories, folklore and replays know all too well how this story eventually ends.
Sunday morning the preacher mentioned the game. Meanwhile, my chief concerns were that no one would stand to testify and the sermon would be short and the invitation even shorter, so that I wouldn’t miss the opening tip. Not only was the “sick” excuse rendered by my folks invalid for church, but I was also dreadfully leery of skipping church on such an important day.
Earlier that morning in Sunday School, I remember asking one of the teachers whether or not it’s wrong to pray about a sporting event. His answer, surprisingly, was that nothing was outside the realm of God’s power, no matter how small or trivial it may be deemed – on the contrary, this most certainly was not in the least trivial. So I prayed, several times actually; each time tactfully sneaking in a humble request for victory over the hated Evil Empire amongst the nobler requests for the players’ safety and humility and all that other good stuff for which you’re supposed to pray.
Alas, Divine Intervention, or at least my newfound perverted interpretation of it, was not to be. We just flat ran out of gas. Our legs were, understandably, gone.
Gainey had played all 160 minutes of the tournament while the other starters were spelled briefly by Buffom and in small part by Norton and Wells (Wells played more minutes as a freshman in the ACC tournament than he did on his Senior Day). We had played admirably, having lost by a misleading 10 points, due in large part to Carolina’s made free throws in the waning minutes. But in our Good Fight we had continued to frustrate another excellent ACC team – an eventual Final Four team – by limiting their possessions and dictating tempo. But in that offensive style baskets come hard, every possession is critical, and every State fan knew that six-point halftime deficit would likely prove insurmountable.
And indeed it had been.
Thus it had ended, 64-54, that remarkable run by the newest version of the Cardiac Pack, 10 years after its last ACC title and five years after it had forfeited all respectability.
While disappointed, there was no shame in that loss. My grandfather, who had a knack for imparting hard-earned wisdom in the most inconvenient of ways, offered me this consoling yet slicing insight: “Well boy, someone has to lose. Too bad it’s always your team.”
Now here we are, 24 years after we penned the ultimate Cinderella story and 10 years after that unprecedented tournament run, looking to write the next chapter. Perhaps we expect it, because we know it’s indeed possible. Just ask Coach Lowe.
Sure, we’re not as hot as we were towards the end of that 1997 season, but this time around we have that same heart and same fighting spirit in addition to the size and quickness and talent to exploit match ups and beat anyone in the league, which we’ve already proven on several occasions this season.
It’s been 20 years since our last conference title. Maybe, just maybe, the slipper will fit one more time and this will once again be our year.