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

The East Regional in the Meadowlands was another four-team tournament, with us Arkansas, Cincinnati and Virginia. No matter what we thought going to Winston-Salem a week earlier, we knew this weekend would be a challenge. Arkansas and Cincinnati were both cat-quick, athletic teams like Florida State, the teams that tended to give us trouble. And should we meet Virginia again, we knew we’d beaten them three times already and a fourth time would be difficult.

We checked into the Park Lane Hotel, overlooking Central Park, on Thursday. One of the great things about playing basketball at Carolina is that you travel first class in every respect. The coaches figure, as hard as we work and as much as we bring to the university in terms of recognition and revenue, without being paid anything beyond our scholarships, we at least ought to stay in the finest hotels and eat the best food. The Park Lane is one of the classiest hotels in the city, and it’s a super experience, especially for guys who haven’t been in New York much. We had a team meeting on the 41st floor, overlooking Central Park, and while the New York guys were sitting around the table before the meeting began, everyone else was looking out the window marveling at the view.

The games that weekend were a testament to the adaptability of our team to play up tempo styles, the individual abilities of each of our starters and key reserves, to our ability to play great defense in key situations and, finally, to the coaching of Dean Smith.

We were mind-boggled by some of the comments coming out of Arkansas during the week. One of their guys said they’d pressure us like we’d never seen before, in our faces, 94 feet, for 40 minutes. If they could pressure better than Florida State, we said, bring them on. Their comments were repeated many times during the week. They just fueled the fire already in us.

The game was just as we figured — nip and tuck, fast-paced, anyone’s game. We rallied from 11 down in the first half to tie it at halftime at 45. There was a flurry of transitions early in the second half that showcased what a wonderful blend of diversified athletes our team had become. For example, Eric Montross made a great pass, three-quarters court into the corner to Brian Reese, who flew by his man on that lightning-quick first step for a layup.

Our first big defensive play came with 2:34 left in the game, the Tar Heels up by two. We played tight for 45 seconds and forced them into a hurried, leaning shot with a hand in the face as the shot clock went off. That was huge. We went down and scored and we were up by four.

When Arkansas hit a three-pointer to cut it to 75-74 with 51 seconds left, we called a timeout and listened to Coach Smith go to work. I don’t know how many times we’ve seen it over the years, and I only had a four-year frame of reference. But Coach set up a play that everyone knew would work, and of course it did to perfection.

It was a backdoor play from George Lynch to Donald Williams. Coach told our guys what to do and what the Arkansas guys would do in response. It worked just like he drew it up. When George picked up his dribble at the top of the key, the Arkansas player expected a pass his way and broke in front of Donald to pick it off. Eric’s move supposedly to help George was significant, as he took his man with him, leaving a lane for Donald, who made a back door cut and caught George’s perfect pass for a layup.

The Cincinnati game had us a little worried in the first half when they broke on top by 15 points, 29-14. Nick Van Exel was hitting everything he looked at, including one 3-pointer falling out of bounds. We had a hand in his face most of the time, but he still made 6-of-10 three-pointers anyway.

We had rallied to cut the lead to one at the half and Coach told Derrick Phelps at halftime to stay on Van Exel and forget about helping or trapping. Derrick was walking around the locker room, saying, “He’s mine now. He’s mine now.” That shut Van Exel down and he got only two more points for the rest of the game.

A lot was made about Brian missing a dunk at the end of regulation with the game tied, but the officials said it would not have counted anyway. George got in everyone’s face in the huddle and told us we were only five minutes from New Orleans, True to his word, George refused to let us lose and Donald came through with two big three-pointers. When we finally won, 75-68, George was named MVP of the regional with 21 points, 14 rebounds and six steals in the game.

There was a little difference of opinion about whether to cut down the nets. A couple of guys wanted to but several others said no.

“Let’s wait till next week,” someone said. “We’ve got more work to do.”

We were pleased to have won. But satisfied? No way.

NEXT: Henrik Rodl’s diary of a weekend in The Big Easy.