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A look back at the greatest State-Carolina game ever

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When North Carolina and North Carolina State met Tuesday night at PNC Arena, it was one of the most anticipated men’s basketball meetings between the rival schools in quite some time.

For starters, it was the first time in 13 years the Tar Heels and Wolfpack have played with both teams being nationally ranked. And since the 9 p.m. tip-off time obliterated any chance of the game making the print edition of the Times, let me tell you about the greatest game (although Wolfpack fans may disagree) ever played between State and Carolina.

It was nearly 40 years ago — Jan. 17, 1979, to be exact, a Wednesday night — that the No. 14 Wolfpack hosted the No. 2 Tar Heels at Reynolds Coliseum, you know that on-campus arena where State plays one game a year now? For you youngsters (and by that I mean anyone under the age of 45), let me give you a little backstory to this matchup that happened before there was a 3-point line, before there was a shot clock and before there was ESPN. 

You see, back then UNC and N.C. State were a lot closer in terms of rivalry. In fact, it was pretty close to even. Although the Tar Heels had pretty much dominated the head-to-head matchups since the 1920s, each school had one national championship to its credit. State’s had come just five years earlier in 1974 when the Wolfpack ended UCLA’s championship run in the national semifinals in Greensboro. The ‘74 championship was the culmination of a glorious 57-1 record over two seasons that included a 27-0 season in 1972-73, ending with the Wolfpack beating Maryland in the ACC tournament championship game. That was because State was given one year of probation for some fairly minor recruiting violations, which seemed like a bargain given the player in question was David Thompson, regarded by some (including me) as the greatest player in ACC history.

Carolina’s only national title at that point was won in 1957 by a coach, Frank McGuire, who thought so much of UNC that he left to coach at that storied hoops program, South Carolina.

However, since 1957, the Tar Heels had been to five Final Fours and won the 1971 NIT championship, which was considered a major accomplishment given that the NCAA tournament had just 25 teams and only conference champions were allowed in. In 1977 — with arguably the best team Dean Smith ever had, but mercilessly banged up — the Tar Heels lost to Al McGuire’s Marquette team in the NCAA championship game. But by 1979, star point guard Phil Ford, considered by some (including me) as the greatest player in UNC history, had graduated and was on his way to being the NBA Rookie of the Year and the Tar Heels, including junior John Virgil of Elm City, were a collection of hard-working, team-oriented players, most of whom would never get a whiff of the NBA.

Meanwhile, the 1979 Wolfpack of Norm Sloan was a veteran bunch that had lost in the NIT championship game in 1978 when the NIT was still a big deal with the NCAA tournament only up to 32 teams.

Carolina came into that mid-week game at Reynolds ranked No. 2 in the nation with a 12-2 record overall and 3-1 in the ACC. The Tar Heels had just beaten No. 10 Arkansas a few days earlier. The 11-4 Wolfpack had lost back-to-back games to Maryland and Virginia and was eager to get a big win as ACC play was heating up.

Except that UNC had other ideas. The Tar Heels went on a 12-0 run near the end of the first half and took a 40-19 lead into the locker room at halftime. But things were about to get interesting.

The Wolfpack mounted a fierce comeback until Smith called for his famous stall offense — the Four Corners. Remember, there was no shot clock in 1979. But State kept chasing and, when UNC star junior Mike O’Koren left with an ankle injury, the Four Corners began to crack, especially since the Heels didn’t have the brilliant Ford running it. State cut the lead to seven, then three on baskets by Hawkeye Whitney and Kenny Matthews, who never met a 25-foot jumper he didn’t like. 

When Whitney stepped to the foul line with 43 seconds left in hopes of slicing that once formidable Carolina lead down to one point, there was a tussle between UNC freshman point guard Jimmy Black and Matthews after the first free throw.

Lenny Wirtz, who was the Karl Hess of ACC basketball referees in the ‘70s, whistled a technical foul on Black, giving Whitney two more free throws. He made 2 of 3 and State got the ball back. Matthews hit what would easily have been a 3-pointer today (remember, no 3-pointers in 1979) to give State its first lead of the half.

When UNC senior Dudley Bradley missed a jump shot and Whitney pulled down the rebound, State fans everywhere celebrated in disbelief at what seemed like an amazing comeback. The ball went to State senior point guard Clyde Austin (who was Clyde the Glide way before anyone ever heard of Clyde Drexler), normally a good place for it to be. But Austin was trapped just inside the halfcourt line by UNC’s Ged Doughton and Bradley, who was known as “The Secretary of Defense” by UNC fans. Before Austin realized the danger he had gotten himself into, Bradley had poked the ball away from him, scooped it up and went in for a game-winning dunk in front of the stunned crowd at Reynolds.

Matthews got off a desperation heave that missed and the Carolina players ran off the floor, cheering and laughing while cups and ice and other assorted objects rained down on them. There would be no postgame handshake line.

The story Trip Purcell wrote for the Daily Times on the game revealed all grades of subplots, the types of which made ACC basketball so much fun in the 1970s. During the game, Smith got into it with N.C. State associate athletic Frank Weedon. After the game, Smith railed on Wirtz and Sloan blasted sports writer Lenox Rawlings, the Wilson native early in his career with the Winston-Salem Journal, for asking why the Wolfpack played zone defense in the first half.

Aside from what was an amazing game between two nationally ranked ACC rivals, it set the tone for what was to come in the State-Carolina rivalry (and it is and has always been a rivalry and anyone who claims otherwise is just dumb). The rivalry seemed to tip toward UNC that day and it has never really come back, even with the Wolfpack’s amazing run to the 1983 national championship, a year after UNC won its first under Smith in 1982. The Tar Heels would go on to win four more national championships and have dominated the Wolfpack in head-to-head meetings. 

State dropped off the map of being a national contender throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s. There’s a narrative today, made more popular on social media, that when Wolfpack teams blow a certain win or mess up a good situation, that it’s the “most N.C. State thing ever.” You never heard that kind of talk back in 1979 but there’s no doubt that game helped start it. And of course it had to be the most hated rival, UNC, that pulled off the miracle win.

Say what you will about the Duke-Carolina rivalry but the State-Carolina hatefest was once every bit as balanced and passionate and full of legendary players and games and it looks like it might be making a comeback.

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