Today was the last time Dean Smith needed to invent inspiration. Coming up Saturday in Philadelphia -- aganist Virginia in the NCAA tournament semifinals -- is the game of North Carolina's dreams.
"Our season wouldn't be complete without one more shot at them," Mike Pepper said after the Tar Heels won the West regional championship, 82-68, over Kansas State today. "There's still one team that got the best of us this year. Virginia. Twice. And we had big leads both times."
He smiled and added: "The national champion is supposed to be the best."
Smith wanted every edge possible here. In the semifinal game, he defeated the partisan Utah crowd with stallball before he beat the Utes. In the final today, he tried to convince the Tar Heels they were playing the top-rated team in the nation.
Kansas State? Eight-time losers this season? With a front line better suited to tag-team losers this season? With a front line better suited to tag-team matches than stratospheric battles with James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Al Wood?
Smith was concerned his Heels would be chumps, as San Francisco and Oregon State had been the week before that they also would understimate the Wildcats. So Smith found something that still had Oregon State ranked first in the country, scratched out "Oregon" and wrote in "Kansas."
Nobody totally knows what moves the minds of college players, but Smith comes about as close as possible. And the Tar Heels ran almost from tipoff to tapout, with their front line even more dominant than expected and 16 points coming from freshman reserv Matt Doherty.
Wood (21 points and 17 rebounds), Worthy (15 points and five assists) and Perkins (16 points and 11 rebounds) dazzled their shorter and less-mobile defenders, in fact made a zone defense semm helpless with inside passes and outside shooting.
"They put a lot of pressure on our size, and our size is shaky to begin with," said State Coach Jack Hartman, whose tallest front-court players, Ed Nealy and Randy Reed, see eye-to-eye with Carolina's shortest, Wood. "They also changed defenses and that created hesitancy on our part. So we were tentative on offense -- and then had to go to the other end and cover their size.
"That isn't easy."
By the time the game was six minutes old, it was all but over. Carolina was cracking the State zone with such ease that everyone knew everything but the final score. State kept trying all 40 minutes or Carolina could have made matters ugly.
The Heels even got an alley-oop basket, by Perkins from Jimmy Black, against the State zone en route to a 42-29 halftime lead. They also got two steals and full-court drives from Doherty. And some nice defense by Pepper on the best Wildcat player, Rolando Blackman.
"The idea was to try and deny him the ball," said Pepper, spotting the Olympian at least three inches. Pepper played only 14 minutes in all, but Blackman took only two shots the first 12 minutes and made one.
Carolina wanted a fast-paced game and got it, with half-court traps and the 6-foot-9 Worthy sometimes leading the break. The Heels had as many assists, 11, the first half as State had baskets. And six more rebounds.
"Teams had been trying to take it to me all year, trying to get me in foul trouble," Perkins said. "We went at them this time."
Wood was exceptional, the most valuable player of the tournament. He has been in more consecutive games (124, or one more tha Phil Ford) than any Carolina player ever and a steady force under pressure all season on a relatively inexperienced team.
With Pepper and Black new starters, sophomore Worthy having missed much of last season with an injury, and Perkins and Doherty freshmen, Carolina still was as prepared as any team for this sort of experience. Smith had them in the Great Alaska Shootout, which they won, as well as in regular season games against such teams still alive in the Ncaa as Virginia, Indiana and St. Joseph's.
"You never know about chemistry, Smith said, "and we didn't have it early. But it started coming in January. Doherty and Pepper defined their roles, (Pete) Budko and Worthy defined their roles. And Perkins learned so quickly."
Carolina missed two easy shots at the start of the second half, then pulled to a 15-point lead on baskets by Wood, Black and Worthy. State pulled to within nine points twice in the final three minutes, but Carolina showed just enough to ice the game on the free-throw line.
Hartman had been prophetic. Friday he had said one day simply was not enough to porepare for a team as sophisticated -- and large -- as Carolina. Very quickly today, he learned how right he was.