Sunday, March 16, 2003
Twenty years later, still extraordinary
By Hal Bock
The Associated Press
Every year, Selection Sunday finds teams perched precariously on the NCAA tournament bubble, also-rans hoping that when the committee finishes placing the heavyweights and no-brainers, it finds room for them.
Twenty years ago, North Carolina State arrived at the ACC tournament in just that condition, equipped with a 17-10 record, its NCAA prospects shaky, considering the tournament only invited 48 teams in those days.
The record was excusable. "We played the No. 1 team six times that season," said Dereck Whittenburg, then NC State's shooting guard and now coach at Wagner College. "We played North Carolina with Michael Jordan. We played Virginia with Ralph Sampson."
The ACC was loaded and NC State was not. The Wolfpack had a nice team led by Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe in the backcourt. Coach Jim Valvano convinced them that they were more than the sum of their parts.
"Win one game," Valvano told his team on the eve of the ACC tournament. "One win gets us in."
Instead, they won the whole thing, beating Wake Forest by one point in the opener, then North Carolina in overtime and Virginia by three to become unlikely ACC champs and getting an automatic NCAA bid.
In the NCAA tournament, it was more of the same. They opened with a double overtime victory over Pepperdine and followed that with one-point wins over Nevada-Las Vegas and Virginia. Suddenly, the Wolfpack was in the Final Four.
By then, Valvano had them convinced anything was possible. He was a glib glad-hander perfectly suited for coaching basketball, first at low-profile Iona, then at high-profile North Carolina State.
Whittenburg and Lowe had been together forever, high school teammates at DeMatha, then at NC State. Whittenburg recalled the first time they encountered Valvano they were playing in the Boston Shootout, a showcase for high school players.
The coach embraced them and introduced himself. "I love you guys," he said. "I'm Jim Valvano. I own a college."
Whittenburg and Lowe looked at each other. "You own a college?" one of them said.
Valvano grinned and reeled in the bait.
"No, no," he said. "Iona College."
The players laughed and went off to NC State. A year later, Valvano was hired to coach the Wolfpack and arrived still grinning.
"From Day One, he talked championships," Whittenburg said. "He talked about dreaming. He said if you believe it's possible, it's possible.
"He made us believe we could win. We just followed him. He cared about us as people. That's why we had so much passion. At the end of the day, the guy cared about us," said Whittenburg, whose Wagner College team made it to the NCAA tournament on Wednesday by winning the Northeast Conference tournament championship.
Valvano's training table consisted of large Italian meals, plenty of pasta, and singalongs.
He offered insight to his team, homilies such as "God must love ordinary people; he made so many of us. And sometimes, ordinary people can do extraordinary things."
Never more than in the Final Four 20 years ago.
In the semifinals, Houston put on a dunking display against a talented Louisville team and NC State beat Georgia. Valvano was suitably humble about NC State's chances on the day before the championship game, with Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the rest of Phi Slamma Jama waiting for the Wolfpack.
The feeling was there was no way Valvano's team could stay with Houston's high wire act. But the Wolfpack had other ideas. At halftime, NC State led 33-25. In the dressing room, Valvano offered no Xs and Os, no deep strategy to pull off the upset.
"All he said was, 'Twenty more minutes to make the dream come true,"' Whittenburg said.
In the final minute of the game, the score was tied at 52. "The huddle was chaotic," Whittenburg remembered. With the shot clock still three years away, NC State had all kinds of time for one shot to win it.
"They came out in a 1-3-1 trap," Whittenburg said. "We had no idea what to do. We just passed the ball. They could have stolen it a couple of times."
The last time was when Benny Anders got his hand on the final pass to Whittenburg. For a moment, the ball was free. Then Whittenburg grabbed it with two hands and little time to do anything but shoot.
"They didn't recruit me to pass," he said.
Thirty-five feet from the basket, the shooting guard shot.
"I never thought it was going to be short," Whittenburg said. "I thought it was going in. I thought I was in range."
Under the basket, Lorenzo Charles reacted immediately, snatching the ball and stuffing it in - a highlight for the ages.
Final score: North Carolina State 54, Houston 52.
In a moment, the court became bedlam, players hugging each other, Valvano racing around, looking for somebody to grab. NC State had pulled off a miracle.
Sometimes, ordinary people do extraordinary things.
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NKU men sent to early exit
Twenty years later, still extraordinary
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As The Sports World Turns
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