1993 NCAA Champs Oral History
by Turner Walston and Adam Lucas, GoHeels.com
(This story originally appeared in Tar Heel Monthly magazine.)
Twenty years ago, the North Carolina Tar Heels won their second national championship under Dean Smith. Here now, in their own words, is the story of that season.
The team was built with some hard-won recruiting battles, including spiriting Eric Montross out of Indianapolis after a heated recruiting battle with Michigan.
Phil Ford, assistant coach: "The first time I saw Big E, he was playing for his AAU team, Municipal Gardens, with Damon Bailey. When I saw him walk in the gym, I went, 'My gosh, I've never seen anything like that.' Then I saw him move and run and knew I was going to have the opportunity to watch a lot of his games at Lawrence North High School. I actually got to know my way around Indianapolis very well because I was around there so much."
Eric Montross: "I was very fortunate to have a choice of some great schools. I really was a homebody. I liked home. The familiar feel I got so quickly in Chapel Hill was a direct result of the environment created by the Carolina coaches. It was comfortable, and it also felt like an environment where I would be pushed. There were never any false promises."
Carolina began the season ranked 7th nationally, but they'd watched their rivals at Duke University win two straight national championships. The thought left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Tar Heels.
Dave Hanners, assistant coach: "I'm sure at some point Coach Smith's greatness sparked Mike Krzyzewski to be better, and I think the same thing happened in reverse from Duke to us, but it was never something that was talked about. It was just everybody was striving for excellence."
Kevin Salvadori, junior center: "It absolutely bothered us. We didn't think they were any better than we were, and when they won championships, it was not something that we took too kindly."
In a stroke of preseason motivational genius, Dean Smith hit upon a unique idea-superimposing the 1993 team's goal onto a preexisting photo of a celebratory photo of the 1982 scoreboard celebrating his previous national championship.
Montross: "We were in the locker room as a team before the season began, and we were setting our goals for the season. We thought our long-term goal should be playing in April in New Orleans. Within days, everyone had in their locker a photo of the scoreboard at the Louisiana Superdome with the words, 'Congratulations 1993 NCAA champions University of North Carolina.'
"I don't think anyone on the team ever took it down. It was a subtle but constant reminder. I kept mine in the upper left-hand corner of my mirror."
The '93 Tar Heels were built on the foundation of a team that had appeared in the Final Four in 1991, but now was more experienced.
Scott Cherry, senior guard: "All of the guys on the team pretty much for the most part had been a part of the '91 team where we lost in the semifinals, so we had a group of guys that knew what it took to get there, and then we added pieces to that in Donald Williams and (Dante) Calabria and Larry Davis and some of the guys in the freshman class, so I think we were a confident group. We were very good on the defensive end of the floor we felt like we had all the pieces inside, outside, scoring on the offensive end and if we could just get the right match-ups in the NCAA tournament, then we felt like we could make a serious run."
Brian Reese, junior forward: "[We were] definitely more hungry to get there. That was the first thing. When we went to the Final Four we won [the regional] in New Jersey. I jumped on the table, and I was like, 'We're in the Final Four, and I'm only a freshman!'"
Donald Williams, sophomore guard: "I learned my first week of practice about being a teammate and the right way to play Carolina basketball. You've got to get in where you fit in, and find your role on that team, because if you don't, you're going to be sitting there watching."
Ed Geth, freshman forward: "When we traveled, we never had set roommates, because [Coach Smith] really wanted the team to bond. The most interesting roommate setup I had was Eric Montross. Every morning, he would wake up and he would watch the bass fishing show.
"So, I'm waking up and I hear him kind of rustling around watching TV, and on the TV they're whispering and everything and I'm like, 'Hey, what is this? What are you watching?' He shushes me, 'Shh, shh!' like he's really out there fishing! And I was like, this is the craziest thing, and I rolled over and went back to sleep.
It was things like that that we learned about each other. I would let him listen to some rap CDs. I think I was listening to N.W.A. at the time, which is probably something he had never heard of in Indiana, and he let me listen to some David Allan Coe and Garth Brooks, which I had never heard of. And it was things like that that really bonded us and made us learn and see outside of our own world. We got into each other's worlds."
Tough preseason workouts with strength coach Harley Dartt and an experienced roster enabled the Tar Heels to race off to an 8-0 start, with six of the wins by at least 20 points.
Ford: "What separated that team from the other teams I had seen since I had been on staff was defense. Before the game, we would shake hands with the coaches from the other team, and I would always tell them, 'I hope both teams play as well as they can possibly play.' They didn't realize what I actually meant by that. That season, I believed if we played as well as we could play, we would win every game."
Bill Guthridge, assistant coach: "Derrick Phelps was a great defender. We always graded the tape after the games and would grade the defensive performances of the individuals. There was one game when Derrick Phelps had 50 good defensive plays and only one bad play. No one has ever approached that ratio. He could guard people, he could move his feet very well, and he could anticipate very well."
The close-knit Tar Heels were ranked fifth on December 29 when they faced off with the 'Fab Five' and No. 6 Michigan, the national runners-up in 1992 and a favorite for the 1993 title, in the Rainbow Classic.
Derrick Phelps, junior point guard: "We felt like after that game, 'Man, we can be really special.' We just felt like we got tighter as a group after we lost that game, and all of a sudden we started to click. Everybody was healthy. We just played hard each and every game after that, and the results showed how we played. We ended up going as far as we did."
Hanners: "That probably was the first time that we really believed that we could win the national championship, because we thought we should have won that game."
After the Michigan loss in Hawaii, the Tar Heels reeled off eight straight wins and were ranked third when No. 19 Florida State came to Chapel Hill. In December 1991, the Seminoles had won their first-ever ACC game in front of what freshman point guard Sam Cassell famously called a "cheese and wine crowd" at the Dean E. Smith Center. A season later, Florida State led by 21 with less than 12 minutes to play before Carolina began one of the program's greatest comebacks.
Salvadori: "The year before, we kind of got caught off-guard. I think we took them for granted. I have no idea why we came out so flat in that game in Chapel Hill. I remember Henrik Rödl hit a three-point shot, and Coach Smith called timeout. We get in the timeout and he looks at us and he goes, 'I got nothing. We're going to keep doing what we've been doing. I just want them to think about it.' And then we hit another three, another timeout and we came out in that second timeout and you could sense them getting tight, and we started feeling every confident, feeling good. Coach Smith with his timeouts and the things that he was doing, kind of got in their heads."
Larry Davis, freshman guard: "There's no one cooler under pressure than Coach Smith was. He would come to the huddle, we'd be down 20 to Florida State, and he'd say 'We're going to win this game. We're going to win this game,' and he had a smile on his face and you're like, 'What is going on with him?' But he's a man of great faith and optimism and he knows what he has in his team, and you get an inner strength from hearing your leader speak that way."
Montross: "I remember that game being such a balanced effort. It was a little something from everyone, whether it was a jump shot from Henrik, or a steal by George, or defense by Derrick, or Brian driving to the basket-everyone did something during that comeback."
Guthridge: "Coach Smith was very good at saying, 'First, we'll cut it to 10 points.' We'd do that, and then he'd say, 'Now, we'll cut it to five.' Once that happened, he'd say, 'Now, we'll win it in the last few minutes.' He was calm, cool and collected."
A pair of road losses at Wake Forest (by 26) and Duke (14) tested the group.
Dante Calabria, freshman guard: "I just remember that next practice, Coach Smith talking about the team being special and we can do special things."
Ford: "Coach Guthridge has said for years that basketball is not an undefeated sport. The only thing you can do is play to the best of your ability and play as hard as you can. If you do that, you can look in the mirror and accept the outcome. You have to expect there will be some losses on your schedule."
The Tar Heels would not lose again until the ACC Tournament final in Charlotte, by two points to Georgia Tech, in a game they played without Phelps, who had been carted off the court after a hard foul by Virginia in the semifinals.
Hanners: "I always thought it was difficult to win the ACC Tournament and then win the national championship, because you had to win eight or nine games in a row, and against quality competition that's always difficult to do. So, I always liked to get to the finals and lose in the finals. That gave you motivation. I know Coach Smith probably wouldn't agree with that, [and] neither would Coach Guthridge, but just as a young guy that was a good thing, to play pretty well but lose and give yourself some motivation in the finals, and then you've got five or six games to win and win the national championship, which you can do. It's not impossible."
Montross: "What impressed me was that even with that injury, Derrick only missed one game. Coach Ford is one of the toughest players ever, and I don't know what he said to Derrick, but it must have worked, because Derrick went out there bruised and battered and with pads on top of pads. How could you not play for a guy as a floor general who would exemplify that kind of attitude?"
Ford: "I just told him he was an important part of our team, and if there was any possible way he could give anything, I knew his team would appreciate that. But Derrick was a tough kid anyway. He was tougher than I thought he was when I recruited him."
Carolina earned the top seed in the NCAA East Regional and in Winston-Salem defeated East Carolina and Rhode Island by a combined 65 points to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. In East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Tar Heels defeated No. 4 seed Arkansas to advance to the regional final against No. 2 seed Cincinnati. With his team trailing by a point at halftime, Smith shifted defensive strategies to slow down the Bearcats' Nick Van Exel, who'd scored 21 points by the intermission.
Hanners: "He said, 'We're going to make him a key matchup. Derrick, you don't have to follow your help-side rules in the second half. If you're supposed to be the bottom weak-side guy that crosses the lane and double teams on a baseline drive, don't worry about it. We'll get someone else to do it. You just keep Van Exel from getting the ball,' and so because he changed our defensive scheme, Van Exel didn't get the ball because Derrick didn't let him have it much in the second half."
Ford: "It's the only time I've been associated with Coach Smith that he took one defender and put him on one man and said he didn't have to follow any principles. And once we put Derrick on Nick Van Exel, Nick was a different player."
Phelps: "We were such a cohesive team. If I went this way, I knew that Donald had my back and he'd be right behind me, and Brian would be behind Donald and George would be behind Brian. We were such a tight group. We had trust that if I made a mistakes, somebody would have my back."
With eight tenths of a second remaining in a tie game, Carolina had the ball on the baseline near their own basket.
Hanners: "Coach Smith drew up a play and he told Brian Reese, 'You're going to be open and we're going to make the pass, but you can't catch it and come down and go back up and score.'"
Ford: "Coach Smith saw how Cincinnati lined up to defend that play, and he looked at me and said, 'We've got them.' It worked. It was wide open."
Guthridge: "That was a play we had never run before. The only way to get that shot was to draw it up, and it worked perfectly, because it created a great look for Brian."
But Reese's dunk bounced off the back of the rim. The Tar Heels still managed to win in overtime. Against Phelps, Van Exel scored just two points in the game's final 30 minutes. The win put Carolina in the Final Four for a matchup with Roy Williams's Kansas Jayhawks, the team that had defeated the Tar Heels two years prior.
Montross: "We didn't cut down the nets after the regional final, and that was by design. We knew that as happy as we were, we had bigger goals to be part of. The cutting of the net was the final piece, and we didn't feel like our final piece was in place yet."
Ford: "It helped that Eric and several of the other guys had been on the 1991 Final Four team. That year, they were just happy to get there. But in 1993, they wanted a title and they didn't care who was in their way. They weren't satisfied after they won the Eastern regional. They were still hungry."
Behind 25 points from Williams, 23 from Montross, and a 14-point, 10 rebound performance from Lynch, the Tar Heels advanced past Kansas, 78-68.
Williams: "I just played within the game and took what the defense gave me. And that's one thing about Coach Smith. He knew when my shot was falling, and when my shot's falling, he's going to call plays for me all game."
Montross: "There's a photo from that game where you see George and I with our arms around each other. It looks like a happy picture, but it was actually a little different. I had done something George didn't like. He made me feel good, because he came up and put his arm around me. I thought, 'Well, I'll put my arm around him.' And he proceeded to light into me and all I could do was sit there and take it. When you have teammates like George who you know are holding themselves to the highest possible level, you feel like if you're not playing to that level, you're letting them down."
With Michigan getting a three-point win over Kentucky, the stage was set for a rematch between the Wolverines and Tar Heels, only this time, for the national championship.
Phelps: "After losing to them in Hawaii, this was our chance not for revenge, but just to show them that we can actually beat them. Them beat us on a buzzer shot in Hawaii, but this was the game that we can actually set a mark."
Michigan opened a 10-point lead before the Tar Heels switched to a zone defense. A late run gave the Tar Heels a 42-36 halftime lead.
Salvadori: "The zone was very effective. It was something we learned they were bothered by in Hawaii. We kept putting it on them. For the most part, I think it worked out really well for us."*
Donald Williams scored 17 of his 25 points in the second stanza on his way to being named the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player. He finished 10-for-14 from three-point range in the two games in New Orleans.
Williams: "I think that last month of the season, I was just on another level as far as my confidence. It carried over into the tournament and the Final Four. It just happened to be on the biggest stage."
Montross: "He really opened things up for our team-for Brian to drive, for George and myself in the post. Donald was so good at finding the open spot on the court. If I was in the post, he would find a way to put himself in my line of sight, so that I could find him. He could anticipate situations and put himself in position to catch and shoot. All I had to do was turn around and watch it go through the net."
With 20 seconds to go and Carolina leading, 72-71, Michigan's Rob Pelinka fouled Pat Sullivan, sending the junior to the line for a one-and-one opportunity.
Pat Sullivan, junior forward: "I thought about my teammates on the sidelines. I looked over there to them and saw them standing there and I thought about how hard we all worked to get here, to get into the exact position we were in. I remember saying to myself, 'You can't let those guys down and you can't let yourself down.' Before I got the ball, Pelinka and Rose were talking to me. I heard them, but once I got the ball I just blocked them out."**
Sullivan hit the front end, but his second attempt caromed off the back iron. Chris Webber secured the rebound and, after dragging his foot and appearing to travel, dribbled up the court. With 15 seconds remaining, he came across midcourt and dribbled toward the right corner. There, he was trapped by Phelps and Lynch.
Lynch: "During the game in December, Derrick and I pressed them a few times and I don't know if we got turnovers out of it, but I'm sure they burned a few timeouts to figure out how to get the ball across halfcourt. The same situation happened at the Final Four in New Orleans."
With 11 seconds to go, Webber asked for a timeout. Michigan was out of timeouts, and a technical foul was called.
Salvadori: "We had the number one and number two steals leaders of all-time at Carolina trapping him in the corner. Good luck getting out of there. We had a zone set up behind that."
Lynch: "It happened so fast. We were just running back to the bench and I know one thing was going through my mind: I thought they didn't have timeouts. When we got to the sideline, I saw the bench guys jumping up and down. I'm like, 'Why are they celebrating?' You're thinking, 'Well, the coaching staff told us that they didn't have timeouts left.' Then putting together a technical foul, we had the best shooter probably in the NCAA going to the line that year. We knew Donald was good for both of them. Then we had a four-point lead."
Williams: "Coach Smith pulled me over and told me to take the technical shots. That was the easy part. I was right back in my backyard shooting. My confidence was just unbelievable, so I knew when that happened, and I was going to the free throw line, I knew the game was over."
The sophomore hit the two technical free throws, then two more after Michigan fouled in desperation. The final score was 77-71, North Carolina, and Dean Smith had his second national championship.
Lynch: "I remember hearing the band playing our fight song, and everybody trying to find Coach Smith to give him a hug and congratulate him, and everybody hugging you in between that time until we got up on the stage and held the trophy up."
Salvadori: "We played them tough that whole game. I watched the 30 for 30. It was funny because Jalen Rose sat there and said, 'We were the better team,' and they weren't. Their talent maybe, their starting five talent-wise maybe had more talent, but as a team, there's no way they were a better team than us. We were a very close team, we had an incredible coach and we just played so well together. I wish that timeout never happened, because that's their excuse they can fall back on and say, Well we could have won,' but they made that mistake. That's not it at all. People have got to remember that we were winning at that time."
Phelps: "A lot of people always come up to me and always mention that '93 year. I don't care where I go or I get an email from someone or a phone call, or it's on ESPN Classic, I get reminded every time. Every time you watch college basketball, to tell you the truth, it always reminds me of when I played and the goals that we had and the tasks we had to go through to win one, so I get reminded a lot. All the time."
Travis Stephenson, senior forward: "[Recently on a business trip] I rode by the Superdome. Of course, now it's got different lights on it and it's the Mercedes Superdome. I drove by in a cab last night and looked at it and thought about the picture that was in our lockers and the scissors they gave us to wait for the last nets to cut down."
Ford: "My jersey is retired. But I have always told Eric that if he'll give me his national championship banner as a player, he can have my retired jersey. It's the ultimate goal, and to be part of it is an incredible feeling."
* from New Orleans Times-Picayune
** from Carolina Blue
Quotes From The Coach
A collection of Dean Smith's most memorable quotes from the 1993 championship season:
- "It dawned on me: 'Hey, we have a picture of the Louisiana Superdome that says 1982 national champions. Let's switch the 1982 to 1993.' Dave Hanners worked it out, and we made one for each of the guys."-On his preseason motivational tactic, quoted at the postseason banquet
- "I didn't realize how much better he'd gotten until I looked at the tape of our 1991 Final Four game against Kansas."-On Eric Montross
- "I just wanted Florida State to think about it."-After calling timeout while trailing 71-54 to the Seminoles with 9:21 remaining in Carolina's comeback win
- "I usually say something like, 'Let's cut the lead down to eight by halftime.' But I didn't say that today, and I'm glad."-After watching his team trim a 15-point first-half deficit to one point at halftime against Cincinnati in the regional final
- "We consider that we have eight starters."-After bringing eight players instead of the NCAA-mandated five to the pre-NCAA title game press conference
- "I wanted to win it for this team and this staff. I didn't see the final play because Phil was already jumping me."-After the championship game
- "I don't think that timeout necessarily cost Michigan the game. We only had three team fouls at that point, and we were going to keep fouling them to use up the clock."-After the Michigan game
- "Even if that timeout hadn't occurred, I think we had Webber in a pretty good situation in the doubleteam. But it did make it a little easier when Donald stroked the foul shots."-After the Michigan game
- "Donald Williams's run the last four games has been outstanding. When he's on a streak, we screen for him and look for him. I'm impressed with him. He was in a different zone out there. I thought he was going to make it every time he put it up. And I think the other team did, too."-After the Final Four
- "This is for you."-While standing on the ladder cutting down the nets, pointing at the Carolina players and coaches
Sources: Carolina Blue championship edition, New Orleans Times-Picayune (April 6, 1993), Durham Herald-Sun (April 6, 1993), Sports Illustrated 1993 championship edition