For my entire lifetime as a Carolina fan, I've heard anguished Tar Heel fans--including my father--wail about the 1977 national championship game against Marquette.
The Tar Heels had beaten Notre Dame on St. Patrick's Day to advance in that particular NCAA Tournament, and they'd also battled through injuries to Tom LaGarde, Walter Davis and Phil Ford.
But you very rarely hear about either of those factors when you hear long-time fans talk about the 1977 Tar Heels. What you hear about is that Carolina was just minutes from winning the national championship...but went through a long stretch with star freshman Mike O'Koren out of the game and watched the Warriors (in those days, they were the Warriors instead of the Golden Eagles) take control of the game.
I have never quite understood the frustration with that game. Veteran Carolina fans have an almost visceral reaction to it. Mention '77, and you'll almost immediately hear, "O'Koren was at the scorer's table! He was ready to check in! He couldn't get in the game!"
I'd always thought that seemed a little strange. Doesn't everyone have to come out of the game at some point? They'll come back in sooner or later.
Let me say, right here on February 14, 2013, that now I understand it. This was not the national championship game, not even close. But it sure felt like what would've been the season's signature win was right there--only to see the Tar Heels suffer through a key late drought that eventually proved fatal.
Carolina trailed 52-47 midway through Wednesday night's second half at Duke. That's when the Tar Heels suffered through their longest scoring drought of the game-it lasted 2:59, a full six possessions. Those six trips--in a game that felt more like some of the bitter late 80s battles, with real dislike--down the court went like this:
Wildly missed driving shot by Marcus Paige that did not hit the rim.
Missed fallaway baseline shot by Dexter Strickland on a possession that featured P.J. Hairston trying to post up Seth Curry--but his teammates didn't recognize the mismatch and failed to get him the ball.
Now, with 10:11 left in the game, Hairston and Reggie Bullock went out, in what was likely an effort by Roy Williams to get them one last break before the closing minutes. That left the lineup on the floor as Paige, Leslie McDonald, James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Strickland.
Johnson turned the ball over. After a dead ball on the next Duke possession, Williams sent Bullock and Hairston to the scorer's table. They sat there while watching McAdoo shoot a pull-up off the backboard that didn't hit the rim, McAdoo miss a baseline jumper and Johnson airball a baseline jumper.
If these possessions sound painful on paper, imagine how they looked in person, especially with the two most likely shooting saviors sitting there, helpless, needing only a whistle to come into the game and magically fix this drought.
"It was nervewracking," said Hairston, who managed to have a major impact on the game while shooting just 1-of-7 from three-point range, dispelling the notion that he's only a shooter. "We weren't knocking down shots. It was hard to have to watch it."
"It felt like such a long wait to get a dead ball," Bullock said. "We had two scoring options at the scorer's table and there was nothing we could do about it, because the dead ball wasn't coming."
Let me just say that Hairston and Bullock handled this particular stretch with much more grace than many Tar Heel fans probably did, what with the entire town of Chapel Hill screaming, "Hairston and Bullock are at the scorer's table! They're ready to check in! Get them in the game!"
Come to think of it, that sounds pretty familiar. Suddenly, those 1977 fans are making more sense. When the supposed answer to all the problems is sitting right there--right in front of your face--it's like dangling a bar of soap in front of individuals who have been living in a tent for six weeks. It's what you feel like you need more than anything in the world...and there's no way to get it.
There's always the option of calling a timeout, of course. And as much grief as Williams gets about his timeouts, he'd called one with 13:07 left after Duke stretched its lead to four points. That gave him only three remaining for the final minutes. If he has that timeout back, does he call one to get Hairston and Bullock into the game? We'll never know. It didn't make much sense to call one then, because the eight-minute media timeout was coming, and burning another one would've left him with just two for the end game.
Mercifully, Mike Krzyzewski called an odd timeout with 8:13 remaining that had the effect of allowing the Tar Heels to put their two best offensive threats back in the game (Bullock promptly hit a three-pointer seconds later). But the Tar Heels were never able to get closer than three points the rest of the way.
On a night when Bullock and Hairston asserted themselves as being clearly Carolina's two most indispensable offensive players, the time you appreciated them the most was when they weren't on the court at all.
You know why coaches go gray early? It's because of conundrums like this: the Tar Heels proved Wednesday night that they must have that duo on the floor. But in order to have them productive at the end of the game, they have to rest them sometime (Bullock played a team-high 36 minutes and Hairston played 34, and there's no way to know if it affected them, but they uncharacteristically missed four of six free throws over the final 6:40). But when they rested against Duke, it felt like the game slipped away.
Carolina played its thinnest rotation of the season on Wednesday night. Bullock and Hairston were very good, scoring 38 of the Tar Heels' 68 points and making more than half (13 of 25) of the team's field goals. And yet, what we might remember the most is them sitting at the scorer's table, unable to check into the game.
That memory is unlikely to go away for a while. I hear it tends to linger.