Basketball Short Story
Survive and Advance - 5
Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead,
Jim Valvano and Curry Kirkpatrick (1991)
Utah had gained the regional with an emotional upset victory over UCLA, and I knew Utes' coach Jerry Pimm would have them prepared. They played very tough defense until we kept moving back further out and taking those three-pointers we had learned to shoot in the ACC. They didn't count for three points now - and Pimm told his team at halftime: "Don't worry. They can't keep shooting that way" (i.e. 59%). He was right. In the second half, we shot 78.9% and won 75-56. Virginia beat Boston College in the other game, so the West Regional final would be a repeat of the ACC final.
North Carolina State-Utah action

L: Dereck Whittenburg dribbles as Thurl Bailey sets a screen.
M: Jim Valvano on the sidelines.
R: Lorenzo Charles shoots.
I knew that in a Big Game, playing another team from our conference would be easier than playing a stranger. It's called Familiarity. It doesn't breed contempt so much as a sense of confidence that you can play with the other guys. There's no fear, no ascribing to them a higher rating than they deserve. This may sound self-serving, but that is precisely why I've always felt our victory over Houston in the championship game in '83 was a bigger upset than Villanova's over Georgetown two years later. ... Against Virginia, as big a game as it would turn out to be, I knew we would be relaxed and play up to the level of the game.
It was a great regional final. Virginia skipped out ahead by seven points, but we came back and it was virtually nip and tuck to the wire. Sampson slammed in a dunk with about a minute and a half to play, to give the Cavaliers a 61-59 lead. But then Whittenburg arched in a 22-footer. We decided - one more time - to make them win the game from the foul line. We chose to foul our old pal, Othell Wilson. Wilson made the first but missed the second, so we were in a position to win again: down 62-61, with possession of the ball.
This time we decided not to wait for the last shot; we were going to take the first available opportunity to score. Whittenburg drove the lane and dished off to Charles, who went up hard for the basket. Bop! he was fouled by Sampson. Lo was going to the foul line with two shots and 23 seconds left.
During the time-out, all I talked about was what we were going to do after Lorenzo made both shots. This time I remembered Abe Lemons' advice; I didn't want any black cows in this huddle. No negatives. I focused only on the positive. "Lo, Baby," I told Charles, "this is it. We've come this far. Team of Destingy. The Cardiac Pack. It's on you. Knock them both down. When you do, we're calling time-out again. Then we'll talk about defense. But there is no defense now, baby, because you are the man. Brooklyn, New York's own Lorenzo Charles. The guy from the Big Apple. My guy, Lo. Do it, baby."
Oh, I was positive. I was so positive. I made myself sick. That time-out never seemed to end. I wanted it to end, because I didn't have anything more to say. At least I didn't want to say anything else. As the seconds ticked off. I kept encouraging Lo. I had to practically bite my tongue off to keep myself from screaming anything else. Like ... This is what the hell we're going to do when this S.O.B. misses both of these &*%$# free throws!
As soon as the horn went off and the team started out on the floor, I grabbed Sidney Lowe and told him what to do if Lo missed.
Lorenzo, however, truly my guy, knocked in both shots, and Terry Holland called time-out for Virginia. There were 17 seconds left. Our defensive strategy was simple. It was the same we had played the whole game: one man on Othell, one man on Ralph, and then a triangle zone around Ralph. We wanted anybody but those two to shoot the ball. We had Sampson surrounded, and the criticism that Holland got later about not getting the ball to his 7'4" center was totally improper. Plain and simple, Virginia couldn't because we wouldn't let them.
North Carolina State-Virginia action

L: Lorenzo Charles shoots over Ralph Sampson.
R: Sampson floored.
Our defense was no surprise to Virginia. Terry knew me well enough to know that my teams tried to stop the opposition's best players. He had to know I was going to guard Sampson and Wilson. Because if Wilson had beat us, I would have screamed into the night about what I should have done to keep the ball out of his hands; if Sampson had beat us, I would have gone out and put a bullet in my brain. But if some other Cavalier got lucky and hit the open shot that we were giving him, I could go home and sleep like a baby.
Bottom line, this was one of those times when everything a coach planned came out the way he planned it. On that occasion it was as if God was paying me back for 20 years of losing at Syracuse by 57, of watching the Iona last-ditch chances fall away. All of a sudden all those stored-up atrocities were paid back. Because what happened in Ogden was that Tim Mullen of Virginia, who hadn't scored all night, who hadn't even taken one shot all night, got the open 18-footer - and missed it. After the ball bounced off the rim, Wilson got the rebound. But his attempt got nothing but air and fell short; I'm not sure if Othell was trying a lop pass to Ralph or a shot, but it didn't matter. ...
The arena at Ogden was circular; long into the night after the game, I remember simply waking around it. Around and around. Had it finally happened? Yes, we were going to the Final Four! ...
We finally came home to Raleigh because we ran out of underwear, but our pre-Final Four practices were ridiculous. I opened them up to the public, so we had about four to five thousand pepole there every afternoon. We got nothing done. People would just stand and cheer for every little move we made. Actually, I would have preferred for the season to have ended right there. We wouldn't play any more games; we'd just continue practicing and have the multitude come and cheer us. We'd sign autographs and pose for pictures and that would be it.
To be continued ...