A View from the Cheap Seats

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.

About LRM

Charter member of the Lunatic Fringe and a fan, loyal to a fault.

General NCS Basketball Tradition

103 Responses to A View from the Cheap Seats

  1. Trout 03/07/2007 at 9:01 AM #

    Great article LRM! One of the best of the year.

    I watched that GT game in a hotel room in Philadelphia. Was on a flight from Philly to Atlanta DURING the Duke/NC State. Got off the plane, RAN to the closest airport bar and saw the score. I couldnt believe it! Then the win against Maryland and the hearbreaking loss to UNC in the finals.

    Thanks for that walk down memory lane. I hope Sidney and boys can make a repeat 10 years later.

  2. BJD95 03/07/2007 at 9:28 AM #

    Very good stuff. I will toss in my own memories of that run.

    I was in my second year of law school at UNC. I remember going onto my porch and screaming like a lunatic in the last minute of each of the regular season heartbreakers against UNC (fortunately my roommate was also a State grad and fan). We all ditched class on Friday to watch State/Duke at a friend’s house. the head count went like this – 6 UNC fans, 2 Duke fans (there were almost as many Duke people at UNC law school as UNC people), and me. By halftime, “my side” had a 7-2 advantage in the house. In the second half, we were all drinking heavily and exhanging screams of joy and high fives – while the Duke folks just shook their heads and mumbling “are you assholes EVER going to miss?” I was near tears when the final horn sounded. IIRC, it was this win that qualified us for the NIT, which was a big damned deal after 5 years in the desert under Les.

    Saturday presented one hell of a logistical challenge. I was engaged to the woman who is now my wife, and we were visiting with the bridal consultant (to look at reception locales) in Asheville. My in-laws had also driven in from TN, so we couldn’t blow it off. Even worse, the only radio affiliate we could get driving around western NC was – you guessed it, Mick and Woody. Bizarre as it may seem, even they got sucked into the excitement of watching our scrappy bunch. Woody Durham of all people noted after a Wolfpack basket and foul “Kind of hard not to pull for ’em, isn’t it?” Mixon was silent. We were in the finals!

    I spent Sunday morning watching and re-watching SportsCenter to see their preview of the most unlikely of conference finals. State/UNC was being treated like a rivalry again, and I couldn’t wait. We planned lunch at a sports bar to watch this time (I would not be denied). But on the way, we got rear ended pretty hard, and had to go to the hospital to get checked out (whiplash only, for both of us). I finally was released to the waiting room to watch the last minute and a half, to find out that we hung tight the whole way, but UNC had just been too much for us. I couldn’t really move my neck the next day, but my spirits for NC State basketball were as high as humanly possible.

    When I got back to school, people told me (without rubbing it in) about the Franklin Street parties, and how good it felt to say “Go to hell, State” again, in a meaningful context. I always wondered if things might have been different if I had been with my friends on Franklin Street, watching the game decked out in red and looking for a few allies in the bar to fight the good fight.

    We also took the car wreck as something of a sign, and my wife and I eloped about 5 weeks later.

  3. Mr O 03/07/2007 at 9:28 AM #

    This was a great article. Fortunately, I had a good seat for this tournament in the first row in the corner, right above one of the tunnels where the players exited. It was an unbelievable performance for those four days. Even in the final, we were only down something like three points in the last minute or two.

    This was at a time when Herb had a top 10 recruiting class coming in the next year. The ACCSJ used to do a projection of the next several years predicting how well the teams would do. They projected us to be the 4th best program in the future which was a gutsy forecast based on how poorly we had done for the Les era.

    The recruiting class was:
    K. Inge(top 60)
    A. Miller(top 40)
    R. Kelley(top 50)
    C. Williams(top 125)
    R. Thomas(top 150)
    R. Anderson(top 150)

    There was a lot to be excited about on Wolfchat.

  4. Trout 03/07/2007 at 9:37 AM #

    ^ RIP Wolfchat – you were the place to be back in the mid 90s!

  5. Trout 03/07/2007 at 9:39 AM #

    “I always wondered if things might have been different if I had been with my friends on Franklin Street, watching the game decked out in red and looking for a few allies in the bar to fight the good fight.”

    Glad to see I’m not the only fool who thinks such thoughts. 🙂

  6. Buddygreen 03/07/2007 at 9:45 AM #

    Good Point Mr. O. Transfers and other things killed us though and we rode the Dave Odom NIT train for the next four years.

    I would love to see us go deep in the ACC tournament and I think Sid can muster some emotional play but I just do not think we have the horses to most likely get by Duke or especailly Va. and I hope I’m wrong. But I do hope we get into NIT for the additional practice time it gives the staff to work with the players and prepare them for next year.

    Many great things happen at the ACC tournament and I hope the crowd stands and sends Astur out with the class and recognition that only an ACC tournament crowd can give.

  7. westwolf 03/07/2007 at 9:47 AM #

    ^^ I remember thinking, wow, just think how good we’ll be when these guys are seniors?! If we could go to the championship of the ACCT with Buffum, wait until we get this recruiting class some experience.

  8. WolfPup35 03/07/2007 at 9:51 AM #

    Although the Les Robinson era is mostly forgettable, remember he has the best record versus UNX!! His scrappy bunch of walk ons and rejects went into Chapel Hill and beat the #1 ranked Tar Heels 99-88!! Then UNX came to Reynolds and lost AGAIN!
    Les may not have been a great coach, but he sure knew how to beat those Tar Holes!

    BTW my Thurs. prediction: NCSU 75 DU 68

  9. Trout 03/07/2007 at 9:53 AM #

    ^ Actually, I would think Everett Case has the best record against UNC. And Sloan cant be too bad, we did win 9 in a row one time.

  10. redfred2 03/07/2007 at 9:54 AM #

    Great read LRM!

    It gives me pause to stop and think hard about the younger Wolfpack fans like yourself. I was at about that same age when there was absolute MAGIC happening in Raleigh, NC. That was back when THE WOLFPACK of NC STATE UNIVERSITY took a back seat to no one at any time.

    That is what I grew up with and my version of what the NC State basketball program is all about. At least in my mind anyway, it was not so long ago.

  11. newt 03/07/2007 at 9:54 AM #

    Me and my buddies, recent State grads, went down and met the team bus when they returned to Reynolds.

    Sendek had a cold and looked ready to drop. He went straight inside without a word, letting the players have the attention.

    The players looked like they were in a dream. Gainey smiled and took it all in. Pizza came out. The crowd chanted “NC State, NC State.” The players gathered on the steps of Reynolds and Ishua Benjamin thanked everyone for coming out and said “We’ll see you in the NIT.”

    Meeting the team bus became a bit of a tradition for some after that. NC State went to two more ACC finals and lost both times to Duke.

    Last year, a large crowd gathered at Paul Derr track to welcome Sidney Lowe as new coach of the Wolfpack.

  12. Mr O 03/07/2007 at 10:00 AM #

    I might also add that up until this tournament my only experience as an NC State fan was the Les Robinson era. I had been going to ACC tournaments my whole life, but this was the first tournament as an NC State fan that we actually won a game. I think prior to this run the tournament was in Clt for a few years and I remember driving down there on Thursday night to watch us lose in the play-in game(or did Les finally win one of those?).

    Anyways, this was my first taste of winning NC State basketball.

    I was at each of the tournaments that Herb made the finals. Hodge’s freshman year was a great run because it solidified our first NCAA bid. Even though it was disappointing to get blown out in the finals, the win against Maryland was incredible. I will never forget Julius Hodge hitting the three pointer with the shot clock running out to seal the victory as a true freshman. That was probably the 2nd biggest shot of his career with the three point play against UConn being the biggest.

    The one that really got away from us was Hodge’s sophmore year. During the finals against Duke(unfortunately not a very good seat that year) up by more than 10 points late in the 2nd half, I really believed we were going to pull it off. Josh Powell was dominating Sheldon Williams. We seemed to be in total control. It was finally going to happen and I was going to be there to see it. We were going to win an ACC championship again and it would propel our program to another level with most of the team returning. We were going to have the best big man in the ACC(JP), maybe the best player in the ACC(JP) and plenty of other very good players(MM, Evtimov, J. Collins, S. Sherrill, etc…).

    And then JJ took over, Josh Powell left the program, and Vandy made one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA history.

  13. RickJ 03/07/2007 at 10:11 AM #

    “And then JJ took over…”

    What I remember about this was Cliff Crawford fouling out after fighting through 37 moving screens set by Duke to free up JJ. I don’t think JJ missed a shot after Crawford went to the bench.

  14. Dan 03/07/2007 at 10:22 AM #

    I can still remember the Friday Duke game. I lived in the nicest apartments near campus. Sylvan Park, of course. Nothing but class.

    After the Duke win a bunch of us drunk retards rushed the parking lot, and I scored an evening drink with the “ponytail” neighbor girl. Good week that one.

    Mr O, dont forget that Vandy comeback was assisted by one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen. The intentional foul on Marcus Melvin was assinine. That game was stolen from us.

  15. Trout 03/07/2007 at 10:23 AM #

    Because we are talking about it, careeer records against UNC:

    Everett Case: 25-19
    Press Maravich: 2-2
    Norm Sloan: 14-26
    Jim Valvano: 6-18
    Les Robinson: 5-7
    Herb Sendek: 5-16
    Sidney Lowe: 1-1

  16. Dogbreath 03/07/2007 at 10:28 AM #

    Valvano and “He who shall not be named” have remarkably similar records vs. UNC.

  17. burnbarn 03/07/2007 at 10:42 AM #

    I do not recall any player progressing more during a season than Gainey did that year. In the first half of the season he could barely bring the ball up without it being stolen from him. By the end of the season, he was stone cold and seemed to be able to handle any pressure.

    At that time i thought we really had gotten a great coach and that things were looking up for us. As it turns out, we had a good coach. My favorite thing about Sendek at that time was how he referred to our players as ‘men’. That was new to us wolfpackers.

  18. CaptainCraptacular 03/07/2007 at 10:54 AM #

    *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.*

    NitPick Fact alert (if this hasn’t been mentioned already): Maryland beat us in ’89, 71-43. They were #8 seed, we were #1 seed that year.


  19. WAWolf 03/07/2007 at 10:57 AM #

    on the spur of the moment, a friend and i drove up from charlotte to greensboro sunday morning without tickets. we bought tickets from a scalper in the parking lot literally minutes before tipoff for — get this — $25 each. we were in the upper-upper nosebleed section (on the highest row, actually), but i could have cared less. even though we lost, the atmosphere was electric and it was one hell of a game.

  20. Trout 03/07/2007 at 10:59 AM #

    ^^ How in the hell did Maryland not only beat us, but destroy us in that ’89 ACCT? I mean, we are talking Bob Wade Maryland. 1-13 Maryland. And they beat us by f-ing 28 points?

  21. dj9686 03/07/2007 at 11:06 AM #

    Lot’s of good points and memories above! For someone that was at NCSU during the ’83 run, Herb’s first ACC tournament was somewhat similar to that in that each win was somewhat seen as the final game of the regular season. How could we keep winning with the odds so stacked against us? The last part of the season and the tournament was Herb’s best coaching of his entire tenure with NC State. Unfortunately, his teams never lived up to the expectations of what he did with so little that year. I remember him pulling our guys off the free throw lanes when we shot FT’s to lesson the chance of getting into foul trouble and also give the team a little bit of a rest in not fighting for rebounds and not having to run back down court. Shrewd moves all around. Herb’s teams just never did much more than live up to lesser expectations for them after that and mostly underachieved. Also waited for that swoon with about 8 games left in the regular season.

    As for Les, I did enjoy those games where he beat UNC twice, but the nine losses in a row in between those wins were pretty hard to take.

    I do think we have a chance to win against Duke and maybe we don’t have all the “horses” yet, but Duke is one horse short themselves and maybe a little out of sinc have those last two loses and the controversy over the last UNC game. That’s all people want to talk about with Duke. Maybe they’ll be distracted and don’t have their eye on the target as they approach the Wolfpack. I think they are a mentally tired team from the coach down to the bench warmers right now and ripe for the picking.

    Go Wolfpack!

  22. BoKnowsNCS71 03/07/2007 at 11:10 AM #

    Trout. That 89 MD game still haunts me. I was driving with co-workers home from a meeting in the mountains and we stopped in a diner about half way back to get lunch and some word on the game. I saw the score and just about *&^%! No idea where the team’s heads were but I just could not believe we would lose like that to that team that year.

  23. dj9686 03/07/2007 at 11:19 AM #


    I think I must have blacked that game out of my memory. That was horrible.

    Anyone but me annoyed with the game being played in Fla.? I know we have to spread out the wealth of the tournament with the expanded conference but the state of Florida barely notices college bball, over college and pro football and even baseball. Sure, UF won the NCAA championship last year and maybe the tournament would be better off being held in someplace centrally located like Gainesville. The tournament is in a real non-basketball town and arena in Tampa. I guess the ACC just went for the bucks and chose won of the largest venues in a baseball/hockey arena. Maybe one of those directional Fla. teams play bball there, I don’t know. I do know that our two ACC Fla. teams aren’t really known for bringing huge amounts of fans to their games. It’s a big deal when 5,000 people show up when UNC comes to town. But, it’s only fair for the games to leave NC once and awhile but I think Atlanta or DC would have been a better choice.

  24. Lock 03/07/2007 at 11:19 AM #

    Wonderful article. I distinctly remember that year. I also remember my father had tickets to that State-Duke game…but only for him. Business perks.

    Still, it was a beautiful thing to hear. And it gave me hope. Gave me hope that was never fully realized, but at least it got us back on an upward swing.


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