My extreme, near-sinful hatred for Carolina could only be eclipsed by the even more intense jubilation of beating those Bastards Born & Bred and then enjoying every fleeting moment of it until it is our time, as dictated by some malevolent, forbidding destiny, to lose to them once again.
I can recall with striking accuracy – actually it’s not really that impressive given the limited opportunities in my lifetime – every victory I’ve witnessed over them: 2007, twice in 2003 and 2002…1998, 1995, twice in 1992, 1991, 1990…
Miserably enough, we beat Carolina exactly once while I was at State. But for a kid that dropped C++ because its mandatory lab interfered with that Thursday night Syracuse game my sophomore year, that lone victory over the very namesake that represents everything unholy in this world was easily one of the most satisfying and lasting victories of my lifetime.
That 1998 basketball season would bestow but a single extraordinary, enduring impression during a decade devoid of such. In retrospect, we must hope that the similarities between this season and that one diverge – and quickly.
Like this season, 1998 had arrived with the newfound optimism and promise of a second-year coach and a presumably much-improved team. Then, like now, the previous team had been thin and oft-outmanned, but had made an unparalleled ACC Tournament run on nothing more than sheer will fused with a dogged desire, having come up just short in the championship game against that one team every true State fan wholly detests most.
And entering a new season, there was indeed reason for optimism. Like 2008, in 1998 we had returned the established core of All ACC Clint Harrison along with returning starters Ishua Benjamin and Justin Gainey (unfortunately, Damon Thornton would miss the entire 1998 season recovering from the hip injury that had brought an abrupt end to his freshmen season). Harrison and Benjamin were seniors while Gainey had already proven himself a veteran. Added to this nucleus was the heralded recruiting class of Archie Miller, Kenny Inge, Ron Kelley, and Cornelius Williams.
Expectations had been raised, but State had struggled through two very ugly early-season losses to Princeton and Penn State. In a game that lulled its viewers into a trance, Princeton had won 38-36 in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Meadowlands. Each team hit only 15 shots from the field while 24 of Princeton’s 38 points were from behind the arc. Oddly enough, free throws had been the difference: Princeton didn’t shoot a single one while State missed two of its three, total.
By its February trip up I-40, State had already lost 74-60 in Reynolds the previous month in a game that had never been competitive after the first TV timeout; by all indications the game in Chapel Hill could be even worse. By this point, State was 14-11 overall and had floundered its way to 4-9 in the conference, and hadn’t made good on the preseason expectations.
Meanwhile, guided by All Americans Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter and supported by All ACC Shammond Williams, as well as future beneficiary of countless ghost hand-check fouls thirty feet from the basket, Ed Cota, Carolina had steamrolled over the ACC, having been tripped up only at Maryland a month earlier, en route to a 26-1 overall, 12-1 conference record, and the nation’s #1 ranking.
February 21, 1998 was typical for a Raleigh winter afternoon: gray skies and mild; a good day, as always, to beat Carolina.
There was an open viewing of the game on a big screen in Reynolds, which drew quite a crowd, young and old. Beforehand, David Thompson gave his usual speech to the captive audience, most of us convinced there was no way he was taller than 6’4,” which only amplifies his legend. This was my first and only time seeing him speak, and I’ll never forget it.
A short time later, I wasn’t so sure about the game, though. They jumped all over us early, leading 9-2 by the first timeout on the dominant play of Jamison. But then the game changed. The freshmen Inge and Kelley switched assignments and disrupted Jamison’s presence in the lane; along with Williams, the three combined for 27 points to counter the combined 34 points of Jamison, Okulaja, and Ndiaye.
People will forget that effort, however. They’ll also likely forget that State hit 30-of-32 free throws against Carolina’s 14-of-19. Impressive in and of itself, it’s absolutely beguiling that State was even allowed to take 32 foul shots, more than less hit more than Carolina took.
But the effort no one could ever forget is that of Harrison. Like Lakista McCuller before him, with 24 points against #1 Carolina in 1995, he went to work with awesome accuracy and precision, slipping off screens and gliding through traffic to find every available open shot and then taking advantage, hitting 10-of-14 from the field and 8-of-9 behind the arc, en route to his career single-game record of 31 points. Neither Williams nor Carter had an answer for him on defense that afternoon.
On that beautiful winter afternoon of my freshman year, State routed #1 Carolina 86-72. When the team stepped off the bus into the frenzied throng outside Reynolds Coliseum late that evening, they had knocked the Heels off their perch atop the nation. For that day, at least, the top belonged to us.
We regrouped outside Owen, reconnoitering in anticipation of the already-building celebration. Of course we did the only logical thing we could think of: we merged with the growing mob as it drove us in chaotic, herd-like fashion towards Hillsborough Street. It had been a late-afternoon game so the celebration carried on late into the evening, and we hadn’t cleared Hillsborough until we had learned that the team bus would soon be arriving at Reynolds. Which was good, because I’m certain there remained no more parked cars undamaged along Hillsborough. I’ve seen video of the celebration on Hillsborough after the National Championship, and I would never attempt to compare the two, but that night it was utter chaos so I can only imagine just how truly epic it was in 1983.
Alas, this tale ends like too many other State stories: as dictated by some warped, predisposed fate, it would seem, our reign over Carolina wouldn’t – couldn’t – last. Evil wins more often than not, which is entirely necessary to ensure that Good remains all that more virtuous. Carolina got its revenge soon enough, in Greensboro a few weeks later, and while their season ended at 34-4 against Utah in the Final Four, our season ended at 17-15 against Georgia in the second round of the NIT.
But on that evening, none of that mattered, because North Carolina State University, the only land-grant institution established for the fine people of the Great State of North Carolina, the school of the greatest college basketball player ever and the original Cinderella, of Fire & Ice and the Spirit of Jimmy V, reigned supreme, once again, if only for that day.
I look back now at that 18 year-old kid and scoff at his innocence and naiveté: if this was just my freshman year, I could only imagine what the next four would hold in store. I mean, c’mon, we’re moving into the new arena in a couple years, we’ve got a stellar recruiting class again in 1999, and we’ll certainly have the most dominant frontcourt in the nation in 1999 and again in 2000. We’ll be a Final Four team for sure by 2001 after that Wilkins kid arrives. Things are going to be very good around here from now on, count on it.
I sure miss that kid.
I’m not callow anymore; on the contrary, perhaps a bit too cynical, hardened. I’ve also matured enough – I think – to appreciate that while sport often transcends life, it is still only a game; winning and losing isn’t life and death. This means I don’t yell so much at the TV anymore (apparently Herb couldn’t hear me anyway).
Of course, there are always exceptions: Carolina. Beating those Bastards Born & Bred is one of the things I treasure most in life. But I’m reticent to the reality of our chances this weekend in that heap of a town in Orange County, especially with Horner and Fells ailing. The simple reality is we don’t do a lot of things well this season while Carolina does, and I’m afraid they’ll easily exploit our many, many weaknesses — unforced turnovers, poor rebounding, poor perimeter shooting, lack of hustle. Right now, based on what we’ve seen to this point, Carolina is a league above us.
Which in this rivalry means absolutely nothing, as we’ve shown many times. Perhaps we’ve got them precisely where we want them, right? If anyone can fire this team up, it’s Coach Lowe, who understands what this game means to us all, because it means the same thing to him.
I want to win Saturday more than anything, and not even for myself – I’ve seen us beat a #1-ranked Carolina before. My reasons are entirely unselfish. I just want us to win so that my baby sister, who is a senior at State right now, can graduate this spring having experienced the elation of knocking off those bastards o’er the hill when they’re #1 like I experienced way back in 1998. I want to win this one for the kids.
C’mon, why is that so hard to believe?