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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

AP Was There: James Worthy, Michael Jordan lead UNC to ’82 title vs. Hoyas

In this March 29, 1982 photo, North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith cuts the net as happy players and fans cheer after the Tar Heels defeated Georgetown for the NCAA college basketball Final Four championship, in New Orleans. The NCAA championship was the only thing missing from Smith's trophy case in an otherwise brilliant career that includes one of the best records in coaching – 468-145 over 21 years in Chapel Hill – an Olympic gold medal and acknowledgment by peers of his basketball greatness. (Pete Leabo / Associated Press)
Associated Press

EDITOR’S NOTE: A panel of Associated Press sports writers voted in March 2020 on the top 10 men’s basketball games in the history of the NCAA Tournament. They are being republished because the sport has been shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. The following game was voted No. 9 and this game story was published in The Times-Tribune of Scranton (Pa.) on March 30, 1982

By Ken Rappoport

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS – A national champion at last, North Carolina basketball Coach Dean Smith can finally say what he thinks about his critics.

“A great writer in Charlotte once said that it was our system that kept us from winning the national championship,” Smith says. “It’s the most ridiculous comment ever made and I’ve always wanted to say that. We don’t have a ‘system.’ We try to use our talent.”

Part of that talent, All-American forward James Worthy and freshman guard Michael Jordan, teamed up to help the Tar Heels beat Georgetown 63-62 in the NCAA finals Monday night, the closest championship game in 23 years.

Worthy won the duel of dunks with Georgetown’s Pat Ewing, scoring a career-high 28 points and winning the Most Outstanding Player award. Jordan scored 16 points, including the game-winning shot with 15 seconds left.

The NCAA championship was the only thing missing from Smith’s trophy case in an otherwise brilliant career that includes one of the best records in coaching – 468-145 over 21 years in Chapel Hill – an Olympic gold medal and acknowledgment by peers of his basketball greatness.

Smith had brought North Carolina teams to six previous Final Fours only to end up a loser.

Disappointed in the past, Smith said he would have been doubly disappointed if the Tar Heels hadn’t won Monday night.

“We had the best basketball team (in the tournament), I thought,” he said. “This was the only year it would have bothered me.”

Smith didn’t necessarily think he had the best team Monday night, however. “I think we were the lucky team,” he said.

The Tar Heels thus certified their No. 1 ranking going into the tournament, the first time that has happened since Kentucky in 1978.

“We were ranked No. 1 in the country in the preseason and the post-season,” Smith said. “Everybody shot at us. We took peoples’ best shots and found a way to win.”

North Carolina proved its worth as No. 1 by winning 13 games at the start of the season, including five triumphs over teams eventually selected for the NCAA playoffs. Both Kentucky and Virginia were undefeated and ranked No. 2 when the Tar Heels knocked them off.

The Tar Heels dropped from the top spot after a loss to Wake Forest with center Sam Perkins out sick. Their only other loss this season was to Virginia, but they finished with 16 straight victories and a 32-2 record.

Monday night’s victory was one of the toughest of all.

Ewing was responsible for that. The 7-foot Georgetown freshman scored 23 points, grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds and blocked two shots. He also was called for goal-tending five times, three on Worthy shots early in the first half.

“I was amazed at Pat Ewing,” said Smith. “He has not shot that well in tapes that I watched.”

Lucky for North Carolina, the Tar Heels had a pretty good freshman of their own in Jordan, who collected a team-high nine rebounds in addition to the 18-foot jump shot from the corner with 15 seconds left that gave Smith the championship.

There was still time, about 10 seconds, for Georgetown to come downcourt and pull it out.

Some felt it was also the moment for Georgetown to call a time out. Coach John Thompson explained why he didn’t: “When Carolina called a time out (with 32 seconds to go), I told my players not to call one if they (North Carolina) scored so Dean wouldn’t have a chance to set up a defense against a last shot.”

As it turned out, Worthy proved better than any defense that could have been arranged. He caught a pass thrown by apparently confused Georgetown guard Fred Brown, a pass that should have gone to All-American guard Eric “Sleepy” Floyd, who scored 18 points for the Hoyas.

“I saw him pick up the ball at the top of the key,” said Worthy. “He was going to throw it to someone on the wings. I thought he’d try to lob it over me or throw it away from me. I was surprised that it was right in my chest.”

Worthy took off downcourt as time ran out for Georgetown.

Worthy was eventually fouled, setting up two shots. He missed them, but it was already too late for the sixth-ranked Hoyas, who ended their season 30-7.

With Ewing and Floyd each scoring 10 points, Georgetown held a tenuous 33-31 lead at the half. There was no breathing room in the second half, when Georgetown briefly held the game’s biggest lead – four points – and North Carolina resorted to its four-corner delay game up by just one.

It was the second NCAA title for North Carolina. The last time was in 1957, a 54-53 triple-overtime victory over Kansas in what is considered the most exciting championship game ever.

This one wasn’t far behind.

There were 13 lead changes, nine in the second half, and the one-point margin was the first in the NCAA finals since 1959, when California edged West Virginia 71-70.

“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” said Thompson. “I am a little depressed. North Carolina is a very outstanding team. Our kids played hard – and that’s all I could ask of them.”