The Beneficiary of B-Ball’s Biggest Blunders

by Paul Knepper

Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith was one of the greatest basketball coaches of all-time. He won 879 games, 17 regular-season ACC Championships and made 11 trips to the Final Four, winning two championships. Strangely, both championships were won on two of the greatest blunders in the history of the NCAA Tournament.

Smith’s first championship came in 1982, when his Tarheels defeated John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas 63-62, in what is commonly known as Michael Jordan’s coming out party. The game was replete with star-power, with Sam Perkins and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player James Worthy joining the freshman Jordan in the starting lineup. Georgetown countered with a freshman phenom of its own, seven-footer Patrick Ewing, and slick point guard Eric “Sleepy” Floyd.

The game was tightly contested from start to finish, with the lead changing hands several times. Floyd put the Hoyas ahead 62-61 with just over a minute to play. Then as a foreshadow to a legendary career to come, Jordan swished a shot from the wing with 17 seconds remaining to give the Tarheels a one point lead.

Hoyas guard Fred Brown brought the ball into the frontcourt and dribbled for a few seconds before he threw the ball right to James Worthy, on the other team. Worthy had been overplaying the passing lane and his man went back door. Brown didn’t realize and thought Worthy was his teammate. Georgetown fouled Worthy, and though he missed both free throws, the Hoyas were out of timeouts and had to heave a desperation three, which was off the mark at the buzzer.

Brown’s gaffe was the most memorable blunder in college basketball lore until eleven years later when Coach Smith and his Tarheels once again found themselves in the Championship Game. This time Carolina faced a brash Michigan team coached by Steve Fisher, known as the  “Fab Five.” Led by All-American Chris Webber, the Wolverines were anxious to atone for the drubbing they received in the Championship Game the previous season at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils.

Carolina was an experienced team led by Donald Williams, Eric Montross and George Lynch and they jumped out to an early lead, behind Williams hot-shooting, but the Wolverines slowly clawed their way back. T
he Tarheels led 73-71, with 19 seconds remaining when Webber grabbed  the rebound off a missed free throw by Carolina’s Pat Sullivan. What happened next remains indelibly embedded in the memory of every college basketball fan.

C-Webb didn’t know what to do after he snatched the board. He looked like he was about to call time out and then clearly traveled as he looked to the bench for guidance, but the referees didn’t call it. Unable to get the ball to point guard Jalen Rose, he dribbled into the frontcourt and then signaled for a timeout. The problem was the Wolverines were out of timeouts. They were assessed a technical foul, giving Carolina two free throws and the ball. That was the game. Eighteen years later, Webber hasn’t lived it down and the average basketball fan doesn’t remember anything about that game other than his timeout call.                                                                         

Brown and Webber’s blunders in the closing seconds of those two championship games in no way tarnish the accomplishments and legacy of Dean Smith or those Carolina teams. The Tarheels deserved to win both games. Smith’s good fortune is just an interesting quirk in college basketball history for you sports conspiracy theorists out there to ponder as we dive head first into another year of March Madness.

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