North Carolina won the ACC tournament with Tommy LaGarde and Walter Davis injured. North Carolina won the NCAA East Regional tournament yesterday with LaGarde, Davis and Phil Ford injured. Clearly, if Mike O'Koren can somehow manage also to get hurt next week, North Carolina is a lock to win the national championship.
Not that Dean Smith is about to hire a hit man to work on his freshman wonder. But there are mysterious forces at work for the Tar Heels. Something like a 79-72 victory over somebody like Kentucky yesterday certainly seemed possible long before the season began, but hardly with a Yonakor playing 24 minutes and a Zaliagiris 27, or a Krafcisin converting the free throws that made it a reality.
There has been one truism involved in all this postseason Tar Heel madness, of course. That is; you can take a way all the stars, all the Olympians on the court, Carolina has a great chance to beat anyone this side of Athletes in Action.
And how wonderfully appropriate. John Kuester is a coach's dream, whose jersey quickly takes the hue of whatever color covers the court because he spends so much of his time chasing loose balls, the unheraled Tar Heel with the Carolina-blue eyes who simply refuses to miss any important shot.
It was Kuester who carried Carolina in the final minutes against Virginia in the ACC final, with LaGarde, Davis, Ford and O'Koren on the bench. It was Kuester who carried Carolina again yesterday, with LaGarde and Ford on the bench and Davis with two fingers on his shooting hand taped together.
And, if form holds, Kuester will be the first Carolina player to read about what took place yesterday in Cole Field House, or Rhodesia, or his hometown, Richmond. That is because he beats everyone else out of bed and to the morning papers. He is no dimensinoal thief.
When it became obvious, at halftime, that anyone over six and under 66 could shoot better than Ford, the burden of running the Carolina pressure offense - the four corners - would fall once again to Kuester. And he ran it as well as anyone could hope, and made 13 of 14 free throws for the game.
"That's the third time Phil has done this to me," he said, and the third time Kuester has run the offense the way its inventor, Smith, wanted it run. Actually, what Carolina ran the final 15 minutes was not its usual stillball, but a recently installed option, 4-0, with more cuts to the basket, which Kuester suggested would work against Kentucky.
And what else?
"It's bad luck if you talk about things like that," he said.
Kuester also runs an effective verbal four corners, the sort of interview where quotes like, "It's a great honor to know those guys (the Carolina Olympians)" and "Coach Smith is the best in the country" abound. He says those things because he believes them.
Yesterday, though, after perhaps the game of his four-year collegiate career, he finally committed a turnover with his tongue. It was a minor slip saying Smith picked the Olympic team himself when the coach has tried to convince everyone to the contrary. But he was genuinely embarrassed.
"Sorry," he said to Smith, and then he tapped his head lightly against a wall.
There was controversay of a meatier sort during and after the game, between Kentucky's Rick Robey and Smith. The Carolina coach insisted Robey was throwing too many elbows into Yonakor that were not being called.
"There is no need for that," Smith said later. "That's the dirty way to play basketball." Smith complained so loudly and so frequently that he was called for a technical foul. And he could be seen shouting and pointing his finger at Robey at one point.
"He called me a cheap (expletive)," said Robey.
"No I did not," said Smith. "I do not swear. I have every other bad habit there is, but I do not swear. I was badly misquoted."
Until someone comes forth with the tapes, it is enough here to note that Smith's tantrums seemed to have an effect on the officials, the one he wanted. And he went into that stall for reasonably sound reasons, for a change. In fact, he had the inferior team at the time.
"When you're weaker, without Ford, you naturally become conservative," Simth said. "Also, Kentucky can't play its two big men (Robey and Mike Phillips) and chase us. Also, when they cut the lead from 14 points to six, I'd say that was a significant change in momentum."
An when Ford left the game for good, with 19:08 left in the second half, Kentucky sensed it could move in for the kill.
"I thought that would be our break," said Larry Johnson. "But that Kuester. Man . . . " His voice trailed off and he smiled in admiration, as one point guard to another.
What Carolina showed the nation yesterday is a team for all tempos. It can be as swift as another Tar Heel, Richard Petty, at time and smart and patient when that is necessary. It is a team that never will realize its potential in the NCAA tournament, because LaGarde cannot play, but it is a team that might well win the NCAA championship.
It is a team that gets by with three freshmen doing what LaGarde usually does, with Davis overcoming his injury to shoot seven-for-11 from the field yesterday and grab six rebounds, with Smith using all his considerable guile.
Then, after a splendid show, a sobering reality struck the team. When the results of the Mideast Regional became known, the Tar Heels found themselves not yet the best team in their own state.