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 Travis Stephenson, UNC ‘93

The record will forever show Carolina won the NCAA championship on that magical night in New Orleans. But for 11 of us, the road to the national title started the night in Lexington, Kentucky, a year earlier when Ohio State bounced us out of the 1992 Mideast Regional.

Some losses are more difficult to take than others. When you get soundly beaten by someone, like we did at Wake Forest early in the season, all you can say is, “Good game,” and go on to the next one. But when you could have won, should have won, were in control of the game – and then it slips away, you have to choke it down like a soggy piece of pizza. Ohio State was like that.

I think some unspoken alliance was forged that night and it grew in the days that followed. We knew we had lots of talent and couldn’t accept losing like that. The media and fans were ragging on Coach Smith and the team.

Then we had to watch Duke win another national championship. I don’t want to take anything away from them – they have a great program – but face it: they’re eight miles away. All spring it was Duke this and Duke that. A lot of their guys come over here to party. You see them come to your campus to socialize and it gets under your skin.

Then Coach Smith said something at the team’s award banquet that I think got our attention. He said he was “for real” when practice started in the fall, and that we’d better come ready to play, ready to attack the year head-on. Nobody thought he was joking.

All these things combined to give us tremendous resolve over the summer and early fall. Most everyone on the team was in summer school for at least one session.

Eric Montross and I moved into an apartment off-campus, and we shared a bond over country music and the outdoors. We’d taken a lot of abuse over country music. Once we were in a steakhouse in Atlanta, where they had sawdust on the floors and played country music on the jukebox. The song came on, “Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares,” and Coach (Phil) Ford went crazy over that song. From then on, that became a running joke with Coach Ford. You might walk past him, and he’d flip a quartier at you and say, “Call someone who cares.”

My cousin lives on a 40-acre lake on the other side of Raleigh. Eric and I would ride over there, get into this battery-powered row boat and drop our lines in the water, fish for bass and enjoy the serenity and quiet time to think.

I remember many of our conversations went along these lines.

“Man, all you have to do is get into the NCAA Tournament and win six straight.”

“Six good games and a little luck and you’re the national champions.”

“Four starters returning, Henrik Rodl and Donald Williams to take Hubert Davis’ spot. We’ve got as much talent as anyone.”

“This is my last year, Eric; you’re halfway out of here already.”

“Where is it this year, New Orleans?”

Everyone one that team had his own way of channeling that dream of winning the Final Four in New Orleans, and that dream was embodied in the time we spent playing ball, running and lifting weights.

When we weren’t involved in a pickup game, Eric and I would go over to a side goal and work on individual moves. Eric’s two priorities were to improve his hook shot and drop-step jumper. Coach Smith always talked about developing a favorite move and a counter. For Eric, that was the hook. Then he could play off that with a fake and quick drop step. I’d feed him pass after pass after pass and he’s shoot. The hook shot was really a key for him. You get a 7-footer like Eric spreading out to shoot a hook, and you’ve got a lot of man to get through to get to the ball.

All the other guys were working on various parts of their games, as well.

Derrick Phelps is always a force on defense, whether you’re in a pick-up game or in the season. He’d just as soon pick your pocket in the summer as he would go to the Final Four.

Brian Reese spent a lot of time trying to cut down on his traveling calls. He’s so quick and his speed is so explosive, the coaches wanted him to concentrate on getting the ball on the floor when he had that quick move. As the season progressed, you could see that move paid off.

I’ll always remember all the time George Lynch spent in the weight room George’s was the power game, muscling up inside, battling for rebounds. A lot of the rebounds George got during the season were paid for in the weight room during the summers.

The player we noticed the most over the summer was Donald Williams. His freshman year had been very difficult. I saw Donald play in high school and there was no question he could shoot and score. When he got to Chapel Hill, he had to learn our system and learn to play defense all over again. Coach Smith played Donald a lot at point guard in practice when his natural position was two-guard. Donald learned what it was like to face pressure by having Derrick come after him in practice every day His ball-handling and defensive skills developed much more at the point than they would have otherwise.

Over the summer, Donald regained some of the confidence he lost. There were times when he got hot and made everything. I think everyone knew toward the end of the summer that Donald was going to have a great year.

NEXT WEEK: Coach Smith gets tough and breaks precedent by looking ahead to New Orleans.