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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Smith Shows He Has Not Forgotten How to Win Titles

ACC: North Carolina continues hot streak by defeating North Carolina State for championship.

March 10, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — It was 66-year-old Dean Smith who decided he was going to win his 875th game on Sunday by matching his 7-foot-2 center on the opposing team's 6-foot point guard.

If it wasn't Smith, you would have thought he was nuts.

Oh, it worked.

Still coaching with passion and purpose as he goes kicking and screaming toward Adolph Rupp's all-time victory record, Smith got to spit-shine another trophy for his pantheon as North Carolina defeated war-torn North Carolina State, 64-54, to win the 44th Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title game before a crowd of 23,250 at the Greensboro Coliseum.

The Tar Heels, led by Shammond Williams, the tournament's most valuable player, fought off several second-half Wolfpack charges to win their 12th consecutive game and improve to 24-6. Williams led all scorers with 23 points, including three consecutive three-point baskets in the second half that extended a two-point Tar Heel lead to 11.

It was the 13th ACC tournament title for Smith, nine more than any other coach. Not only is Smith not washed up--a rumor floated after his Tar Heels started 0-3 in ACC play--he is now officially leading the nation's hottest top-seeded team into the NCAA tournament.

Sunday's win left Smith two victories shy of breaking Rupp's record of 876 wins. Smith will almost certainly tie the mark in the first round of the NCAA tournament. No No. 16-seeded team has ever defeated a No. 1, and Fairfield (11-18) isn't expected to threaten that trend. He has a good chance to break the record in the Tar Heels' second-round game against either Indiana or Colorado next weekend.

Yet, Smith bristled this week when the talk turned to Rupp. He cut off all future queries in an early-week press conference, stating, "If and when that should happen, I'll say something about it," Smith said. "Maybe next year, maybe the year after. Maybe never."

Smith apparently is worried the record will overshadow North Carolina's chances for a third national title under his watch.

"I don't want anything to detract from this year's basketball team," Smith said earlier in the week. "I'm happy North Carolina has had excellent teams over the years, some of which I've been the coach."

While his aversion to breaking the record remains a mystery, his mastery of the game is not. Smith proved Sunday he still had a few tricks left when he put center Serge Zwikker on Justin Gainey, the Wolfpack's freshman guard.

The idea was not to actually guard the tireless Gainey, who played all 160 possible minutes in four tournament games, but to obstruct his vision at the top of the key and cut off passes into the interior.

That accomplished, the Wolfpack were left to fend from the outside, with Smith guessing that the strain of four games in four days would affect their jump shots.

Smith was right. North Carolina State made only 20 of 61 attempts (32.8%), and only 10 of 32 three-point attempts.

Still, the Wolfpack were incredibly disciplined, committing only three turnovers, and resilient.

"I kept telling the team, 'This is like Princeton, with better athletes,' " Smith said afterward.

North Carolina State, which needed to win ACC tournament to qualify for the NCAA tournament, nearly pulled off the impossible.

Williams' nine-point blitz, in fact, did not finish them off.

The Wolfpack answered with their own run, cutting the lead to 45-42 with 9:25 left on Danny Strong's three-pointer.

Jeremy Hyatt had two chances to tie the game with three-point attempts but missed. The Wolfpack then blew a fast-break opportunity that could have cut the lead to one.

Gainey's three-pointer with 6:25 left cut the lead to two, but North Carolina State got no closer.

The Wolfpack (16-14) were left to foul down the stretch, but the Tar Heels made eight free throws in the final 1:25 to cinch the win.

"I don't think fatigue was a factor at all," said Hyatt. "It was just a matter of us knocking down the open shots."

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