Lucas: Let It Snow

Lucas: Let It Snow

By Adam Lucas

With possible winter weather in the forecast, schoolchildren across the Triangle will be checking school closings tonight. Maybe it'll snow. Maybe it'll sleet. Maybe schools will be closed tomorrow, maybe they'll operate on a two-hour delay, and maybe, in true state of North Carolina weather fashion, nothing will happen at all. Basketball fans can hope that whatever happens, it won't impact Saturday's noon tipoff against Maryland.

But no matter what occurs, it's a virtual certainty that this week's weather implications will not approach those of January 2000, when the Terps' visit to the Smith Center just happened to coincide with a significant winter storm in the Tar Heel state.

The snow began on the evening of Jan. 24, 2000, a Monday night. Carolina was scheduled to host Gary Williams and Maryland on Wednesday, which seemingly gave the weather plenty of time to dissipate. Those fluent in North Carolina weather patterns assumed that by later in the week, most of the white snow would have melted to gray slush, and would be more of a nuisance than an obstacle.

The dismal weather would have matched the mood, because just two days earlier, Carolina had lost at home to Florida State, the team's fourth straight loss. The Tar Heels were 11-7, 2-3 in the ACC.

As forecasters predicted, the snow came on the evening of the 24th. But then it kept snowing. And then snowed some more. And by the time it was done, 20.3 inches of snow had fallen at RDU, marking the largest 24-hour snowfall in recorded airport history. Schools were closed. The milk aisles at the local grocery stores were barren.

And yet, somehow, Maryland's basketball team still made it into town. After some debate and a 24-hour delay, the game was eventually played on Thursday night. Even a full 48 hours after the snow had stopped, many locals were skeptical of driving to Chapel Hill, because nightfall had seen melted snow refreeze over the previous two nights, creating even more treacherous road conditions.

Snowed-in college students, however, needed something to do--like go to a basketball game. A crowd of 15,455 still came to the game, a remarkable turnout considering the conditions. When it became obvious by the first television timeout that many lower level patrons hadn't made it to the game, the decision was made to allow fans to move down and fill the lower level seats. A PA announcement was made, resulting in a mad scramble--including the unusual sight of some students walking over the tops of some of the courtside seats to get to an empty spot--that filled the lower level.

It wasn't a completely student-populated game. But the fact remains that the only people at the Smith Center that night were those who either were already on campus (students) or those who valued Carolina basketball over their personal driving safety (diehards). Give those students and diehards room to roam in the Smith Center, and the results were bound to be unique--especially for that era.

By now, you're probably used to complaints about the Smith Center atmosphere. But even the worst Tar Heel crowd of the last five years would be downright rambunctious compared to some of the crowds of the 1999-2000 era. It wasn't quite complacency, but the UNC home environment had definitely gotten sterile.  

By the time the students stormed the lower level, Maryland was on its way to building an 11-point lead. The Terps still led by seven at halftime. But powered by the snow-crazed crowd ringing the court and one of the best environments in the building's history, the Tar Heels went on a 14-0 second-half run. Brendan Haywood had a key dunk and nailed a pair of free throws late in the game, and Carolina held on for a 75-63 victory. The win prompted a storming of the Smith Center court, fairly unusual given that Maryland was ranked just 22nd in the country, but the circumstances made it seem appropriate.

"Not in this atmosphere, we weren't going to put Carolina away tonight," Gary Williams said.

That win helped salvage a difficult regular season that ended with the Tar Heels tied for third in the ACC. Bill Guthridge eventually piloted one of the most remarkable postseason runs in UNC basketball history, guiding his team all the way to the Final Four.

But that wasn't the only lasting impression from the season--and the snow game. The student-charged atmosphere fueled a push for better student seats at the Smith Center. That was combined with the introduction of youthful, energetic Matt Doherty as head basketball coach in the summer of 2000, a coach who instantly connected with the student body. With the collaboration of the Rams Club and athletic department, a new set of riser seats in one end zone were introduced during the 2000-01 campaign.

The residents of that particular section were quickly dubbed Doherty's Disciples; this DTH story from February of 2001 reads like it's from a time capsule.

Those same risers will undoubtedly be filled again on Saturday afternoon, the last lingering evidence of snow that fell a dozen years ago.

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.


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