All season long’s “Hoop It Up” will be republishing select excerpts from Return To The Top on the 20th Anniversary of Dean Smith’s 2nd NCAA title season in 1993. Check back on Monday of each week for the next RTTT.

By Scott Cherry, UNC ‘93

It was almost 7 p.m. when we boarded the bus outside the Charlotte Coliseum after losing to Georgia Tech in the final of the ACC Tournament. Everyone was down about the game. We felt we had the better team – we’d won two earlier games by a 24-point total – but without Derrick Phelps playing, we just weren’t quite in sync. Winning the tournament had been one of our goals for the season and now it was gone.

The loss was particularly disappointing personally because, with Derrick out, it was up to the other point guards to overcome his absence. We all played hard and did some good things, but obviously not enough to win. Plus, Georgia Tech played a tremendous game. James Forest was like a house afire (27 points, 10 rebounds) and we couldn’t cool him off. They won 77-75.

The loss hammered home the fact that injuries are a part of the game; that maybe Derrick might not get back at all after getting hurt in the semifinals against Virginia. That meant everybody would have to pick up his intensity, renew his dedication toward his ultimate goal of winning the NCAA championship. We had to rebound harder, play defense tougher, work to get more open on the offensive end. Whether Derrick came back or not, we simply had to be more focused. Winning the ACC regular season title and 28 games meant nothing now. The bright spot of losing was that Georgia Tech had given us another wake-up call.

As we settled into our seats, some of us turned on our radios and little TVs, and we started to pick up on the pairings for the NCAAs. The mood lightened. We ate pizza and began to look ahead. Just as our heads would have come off a high had we won, we starting pulling them out of the dumps and directing our thoughts toward winning six more games.

We figured we’d still get the No. 1 seed in the East and open in Winston-Salem, and the rumor was we’d play East Carolina. That’s exactly what happened. We looked around to see where the other ACC teams were going. Virginia, also in the East, was the only other ACC team we could meet before the Final Four. By the time we got back to Chapel Hill, the loss was a thing of the past. Coach Guthridge told us to take Monday off and be ready to go back to work Tuesday. “This is still a special team,” he said. “Great things will still happen if we pull together and work hard.”

Coach Smith stressed that we’re not playing in a 64-team NCAA field – rather we’re playing in a four-team weekend tournament that we have to win. If we win this one, we can play another one. As we gathered for practice on Tuesday, there were only four teams left in the world as far as we were concerned: Carolina, East Carolina, Rhode Island and Purdue. Our job was to go to Winston-Salem and prevail over two of those teams.

With two good performances, we expected to win both of our games, but we never dreamed we’d have as easy a time as we did, beating East Carolina 85-65 and Rhode Island 112-67. Both teams looked good on tape, and both had to have some good wins to get where they were. East Carolina was difficult to shake. You could see how fired up there were, getting a chance to play us, and they were hot from outside in the first half. But we had too much height and fire power and we got a good win to open the tournament.

There was one moment in the East Carolina game that gave us a scare. Derrick hadn’t practice all week after suffering a badly bruised tailbone in his fall against Virginia. He was wearing a protective pad and in the second half East Carolina had a breakaway layup, and Derrick was the only man back on defense. We were kind of saying to ourselves on the bench, “Let him go, Derrick, let him go.” But he stood right in there, took a charge and went sprawling on his back side. We held our breath for a minute but Derrick got right up.

The Rhode Island game was one of the strangest I’ve ever been around. I thought it would be a tough game. But we dominated so much early that they were totally taken out of it mentally. You could see it in the eyes of their point guard. Every time he came down court he was waiting to get trapped. No one wanted the ball. They missed some open shots around the basket because they were so worried about our height advantage. Some of the guys said at halftime they were saying things on the foul line like, “You guys are good,” and “Take it easy on us.”

We loved the big lead on the bench because the starters came out early in the second half and the rest of us got some quality minutes in an NCAA Tournament game. That was a lot of fun. I wasn’t about to give the tired signal and risk coming out. You could hear the fans having a good time cheering for us.

NEXT: Cherry on a healthy Phelps and the East Regional at the Meadowlands.