Personal: Sweet 16 After 16 Years

In March of 1989, I was a senior in high school.

Everyone on my father’s side of our family (grandmother, aunts, even great aunts) was educated at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. My father, however, bucked tradition and went to NC State. (Bless his heart) After earning an undergraduate degree and a PhD from NC State, my dad set me on the course of being a Wolfpack fan growing up in Tarboro, North Carolina at a very young age. Despite my NC State roots, I was a Morehead Scholarship finalist at ‘another school down the road’ and was internally conflicted about a potential decision between my love (NC State) and…well…let’s not think about it.

The week that the 1989 NCAA Tournament began, I received notice that I had not been awarded a Morehead. As sad as this spurn could have been, my decision to attend NC State was made for me as March Madness was just beginning.

I was looking very forward to my freshman year at NC State. After a lot of selling and coaxing on my part (also known as pestering), my best friend in Tarboro had decided to spurn opportunities to attend Davidson and Duke to attend NC State with me. As it is this year, the weekend of the 1989 Regional Finals (Sweet 16/Elite 8 Weekend) was also Easter weekend in 1989.

My best friend, let’s call him Stephen, and I were guests of some friends at a beach house in Emerald Isle for the holiday. On Friday night of March 24, 1989, we all gathered around the television set at the beach to watch Jim Valvano’s NC State Wolfpack battle Georgetown in the Sweet 16 on WNCT-TV Channel 9. As with so many of Valvano’s squads, the Wolfpack was meshing very well late in the season and was making another push in the NCAA Tournament; Valvano’s 1989 squad represented his 4th appearance in the Sweet 16 in his first nine seasons of coaching NC State. (Nine years of coaching…sound familiar?)

The week prior to the Sweet 16 in East Rutherford, State had disposed of South Carolina in the first round, and then Iowa by a score 102-96 in a double overtime classic that saw Rodney Monroe drop 40 points in an amazing performance. Georgetown still had a big national reputation, and they also had a guy named Alonzo Mourning in the middle. If the Wolfpack were to win on Friday night, they would advance to Sunday afternoon’s Regional Championship to play a Duke squad that State had beaten by 15 points earlier in the season. (Sound familiar? If State wins tonight then we could advance to play Carolina on Sunday afternoon.)

Stephen and I shared a special feeling of anticipation for that particular game — as the game represented excitement not only for the 1989 season, but for what was to become of our next 4 to 5 years in Raleigh and as a harbinger for potential basketball success that we were going to get to enjoy in the next 4 years with Coach Valvano and the boys.

What was to transpire for the Wolfpack was heartbreaking and still stings anyone who witnessed it – After trailing much of the game, State mounted a torrid comeback in the second half that climaxed when Chris Corchiani was fouled by Alonzo Mourning in the middle of a drive and jump-stop that resulted in a made basket. Corchiani, an 88+% free throw shooter, was going to line to either tie the game or put State ahead and Alonzo Mourning was going to the bench with is 5th foul. With the comeback that had just transpired, little doubt existed that the Wolfpack was going to advance to the Regional Finals and Jim Valvano seemed to be re-creating a 1983-like run through the NCAA Tournament.

Only one problem existed – out of nowhere came running a relatively unknown referee named Rick Hartzell who inexplicably called Chris Corchiani for a travel as another official signalled foul on Mourning. Everyone was dumbfounded, including the CBS Broadcasting crew. The call was so blatantly bad that Billy Packer commented during the CBS Broadcast that it was “the worst call in the history of the NCAA Tournament.” Heck, it was so bad that it is still remembered today by others who aren’t even NC State fans; take for example this entry from Duke Basketball Report written just a couple of weeks ago:

“In case you didn’t hear about it, one of the officials in the title game was Rick Hartzell — a former ACC ref who’s infamous among N.C. State fans for a controversial traveling call on Chris Corchiani in the final seconds of a Sweet 16 game with Georgetown in 1989. Hartzell is also one of the three refs who screwed up the end of the 1997 Duke at Virginia game in ways too convoluted to go into here. “

The way that we lost hurt so much that it was everything that I could do not to shed a tear in front of all of my friends and their families.

Hartzell killed the Wolfpack that night. He may even have helped kill Jim Valvano’s career. Had State moved on to win another National Championship less than one year prior to the Personal Fouls “scandal”, one has to wonder if some kids selling some shoes and some tickets would have been enough to derail a two-time national champion. Remember, Dean Smith had only one title at the time and Coach K was still a few years away from getting his first. Valvano wouldn’t only have been the most popular guy on the block…a case could have been made that he was the most successful.

Duke went on to beat Georgetown in a game whose lasting memory is the Phil Henderson facial dunk over Alonzo Mourning. I watched that game from my grandparents’ house in New Bern with Stephen and my grandfather (since we always stopped at grandma’s for Sunday lunch after leaving the beach). The grandfather that I watched that game with passed away just two months ago waiting 15 years and 10 months to watch the Wolfpack in another weekend of Sweet 16 basketball with me. We never got to enjoy that again.

We are now 16 years removed from 1989 and a helluva lot has transpired within the NC State Basketball program. Despite the changes, some strange parallels exist in our Sweet 16 appearance — Consider that just like in 1989, NC State is again traveling to the Northeast with a coach who is in his 9th season for a Sweet 16 game on Friday night of Easter weekend and a win would put us in the Regional Finals against another school from the Triangle who would be the favorite.

It is amazing how history finds a way to repeat. (God, please tell me that you are not cruel enough to have Rick Hartzell officiate tonight’s game!?)

As for my tears that I couldn’t shed in 1989? Well, as the buzzer sounded on our win over UConn on Sunday afternoon…there was nothing that I could do but smile when I felt tears run off my face after waiting 16 years to get another crack at this opportunity. It was more than a little fitting that as I was wiping them away, I answered a telephone call from my friend Stephen whose first action after the win was to call me and say, “Dude, I am physically shaking right now. I can’t believe it. We”ll have to talk later.”

Maybe Coach Sendek is on to more than I give him credit for when he talks about the importance of relationships.

Go State!

General NCS Basketball

3 Responses to Personal: Sweet 16 After 16 Years

  1. Ben 03/25/2005 at 4:38 PM #

    One thing to remember… This is the same Rick Hartzell who’s the athletic director at the University of Northern Iowa (, who somehow overcame the odds and earned an at-large bid this year. Supposedly, Hartzell has declined an invitation to officiate in this year’s tournament, because he was scheduled to work the day that UNI was going to play, and he felt his AD duties took precedence. So, in theory…

  2. Sammy Kent 03/25/2005 at 5:03 PM #

    Maybe Coach Sendek is on to more than I give him credit for when he talks about the importance of relationships.

    Ummm, then again, maybe not.

  3. blpack 03/25/2005 at 11:33 PM #

    Great article. Such a painful loss. I felt like a W was taken from us. Tonight I feel like we folded.

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