What makes North Carolina basketball special, if not quite unique, was shown in one whirlwind trip down the court in the last minute of the first half of the Ncaa wEst region championship today, the sort of split-second unselfish play most teams preach but rarely practice.
Faster than it takes to describe it, three Carolina players passed up makeable shots for the passes that ended with the highest-percentage shot of them all -- a seismic stuff by Sam Perkins. On the break, Jimmy Braddock could have shot a 17-foot pullup jumper but passed, instead, to the more open Al Wood. A 60-percent shooter for the day, Wood could have shot a 12-foot jumper but passed, instead, to the more open James Worthy. Let's allow Worthy to take it from there:
"Yeah, I could have shot that five-footer I had, he said. "But that's the great thing about basketball here. If somebody's more open than you are, he gets it. And Sam couldn't miss."
He could have, if the nearest Kansas State defender had gone for Perkin's throat instead of his arm. And when the freshman with the arms that seem to reach from one end of the court to the other converted the free throw the Tar Heels not only were making hoop purists warm with delight but also running up a lead that would end at 82-68.
This was the clinic in artistry Dean Smith's teams offer a few times a decade, when players talented enough to dominate games on their own decide to create a tapestry of togetherness. Carolina today disassembled a well-coached team dedicated to stopping exactly what beat it.
The Tar Heel front line of Wood, Worthy and Perkins is the reason basketball has zone defenses. Teams such as Kansas State drop everybody back and try to deny them the ball for easy shots. They want to challenge the Mike Peppers and Jimmy Blacks to beat them from long range.
Coach Jack Hartman teaches defense as well as anyone at any level of basketball. Surely, he shuddered the second and third time the Heels came down court today. To his amazement, the State 3-2 zone had some holes in it -- and Carolina found them. Somehow, Black shot a pass through waving Wildcat paws to Worthy that ended with a layup and foul shot.
The next time, Worthy got the ball low on the right baseline, drew two defenders toward him and hit Perkins for another easy basket. Then it was Worthy inside from Perkins -- and Perkins inside for a three-point play from Worthy.
"The hole was so big that at first I thought they were in a man to man," Worthy said.
"Oh?" Hartman said. "The hole is big if the receivers are as big as those guys."
Few men of their size and experience have ever passed better more often in traffic so heavy and under such pressure. Worthy is a 6-9 sophomore who missed much of last season with an ankle broken so severely that all the pins will not be removed for another three months. Perkins is a 6-9 freshman with a 41-inch sleeve length and an uncommonly delicate touch.
"I envisioned a championship," Perkins said after Carolina had won a regional final for the sixth time without defeat under Smith. "I envisioned us jumping up and down after the game."
Anyone so gifted and so pass-conscious can make most visions come to pass. But Carolina just happened to unfetter another terrific freshman who will be useful next week in Philadelphia. Everybody can use a 6-7 shooting guard who plays splendid defense, and Carolina has one in Matt Doherty.
Doherty does not start. Pepper, the Washington-area senior and one of the finest overachievers in big-time basketball, has earned that role. But Doherty has been one of the unnoticed reasons the Heels have won their three NCAA playoff games with such flair.
In 28 minutes today, he was six for seven from the field, four for six on free throws, had five rebounds, three assists and two steals. And one sign, the one over the Carolina dressing room.
"I wanted the NBC one, or the NCAA one," he said. "But this'll do fine. It'll look great in my room."
Like Perkins, Doherty was supposed to look great as soon as he arrived in Chappel Hill this summer. He did not, or least not for a season-long span. A broken thumb suffered when he tripped over somebody's leg in a movie theater kept him out of nine regular-season games and indifference made him look mortal in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
"I was holding back, content to let the others play," he said. "Then some friends at home (on Long Island) gave me a good talking to after the ACC. They told me to play like I always had, to look for breaks and help make them. I haven't been holding back since."
Neither has Pepper. Smith did not exactly discourage the 6-3 senior from Vienna, Va., from attending Carolina, but he was realistic.
"He didn't make the Blue Team (the best of the Heel reserves) his sophomore year," Smith said. "But at the end of that year, he began to catch my eye. He had a great preseason his junior year. He's come along as well as anyone I've had. No, when he came here I didn't see him as a starting guard on a final-four team."
When they arrive fresh from high school heroics, players quickly discover humility and a sense of team play.They are included in empty-gym summer games with and against alums who just happen to be NBA all-stars. Players like Doherty and Perkins learn to defend against such as Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak before they officially enroll as Carolina freshmen.
"It got kinda frustrating," Doherty admitted, "when I couldn't do what I'd been doing in high school. But I had to be realistic. These guys were all-pros. And when you see those guys passing so often, you pick it up."
This si a major reason Smith wins so regularly. He is one of the few teachers who offers postgraduate courses in basketball before his students