It has become a winter tradition, these North Carolina-Virginia classics. Today, the Tar Heels wasted all but two points of a 23-point lead before escaping with a 101-95 victory over the second-ranked Cavaliers.
This one had all the elements that have made the nine games between the two schools since Ralph Sampson enrolled here so fabulous. It had Coach Dean Smith bringing Carolina (12-3, 2-0 in the ACC) in well prepared, using a 1-3-1 zone most of the game to contain Sampson.
It had the Cavaliers (12-2, 3-1 in the conference), flat for 30 minutes, making an extraordinary comeback from an 85-62 deficit with 9:41 to go to trail, 97-95, in the final minute.
It had UNC center Sam Perkins, twice embarrassed by Sampson last year, playing the game of his life, outscoring Sampson, 36-17, on 12 of 17 shooting, including four-for-four three-point shots.
And it had Carolina, after almost unraveling, hanging on at the finish, thanks to the cool of its only senior, guard Jimmy Braddock, a player maligned by many when the defending national champions lost three of their first six this season.
"I remembered what happened in here two years ago when we blew a 16-point lead and I couldn't get it out of the back of my mind down the stretch," Braddock said. "Down the end, I was glad to shoot those free throws."
Braddock, who once made 247 foul shots in a row in practice, was 10 of 10 from the line (the team was 30 of 35) but the ones that mattered most came with 28 seconds left after a follow shot by Jim Miller had cut the margin to 97-95 with 49 seconds left.
The Tar Heels broke Virginia's press after the Cavaliers called their last timeout and went into their delay game, which they began running as soon as the 30-second clock was turned off in the final 4:29 of the game. Braddock, the only UNC player who did not seem bothered by the press (he made none of his team's 19 turnovers) controlled the ball at midcourt and was fouled with 28 seconds to go.
Braddock calmly made both shots. When Othell Wilson, who led the Cavaliers with 25 points, missed a three-point shot, Perkins rebounded and Michael Jordan (16 points) clinched it with two more foul shots.
It was only the second time in four years a Sampson-led team has lost in University Hall, the last being 34 games and three seasons ago when Ernest Graham and Maryland beat the Cavaliers, 63-61.
"I thought it was a great game to watch," said a visibly delighted and perspiring Smith. "We played very well the first half and they made a comeback that reminded me of two years ago. But you have to give Jim Braddock credit."
Give Smith some credit, too. He is now the only ACC coach with a winning record against Sampson (5-4) and his game plan had a lot to do with today's victory. Smith decided that if Sampson was going to beat him, it was going to be with four arms in his face every time he shot.
So, Smith set up a 1-3-1 zone with 6-11 freshman Brad Daugherty technically assigned to the middle but actually assigned to jump over to join Perkins on Sampson when he had the ball. Plus, Jordan often sagged to create a triple team.
That left the outside open, but the Cavaliers, who shot 42 percent overall, couldn't capitalize.
The first half was played on the run, both teams consistently pushing the ball up court, Carolina--most notably Perkins, who had 25 points--did it better.
"When I saw Ralph wasn't guarding me it was pretty easy for me to post up inside," Perkins said.
Sampson was almost invisible much of the day, finishing with 17 points and 12 rebounds, but doing little else. He committed two reaching fouls in the back court, including No. 4 with 14:59 to play.
He was not available for comment afterward.
"They started playing to keep the lead a little bit," said forward Tim Mullen, explaining Virginia's comeback. "They quit attacking and we had our quick team in."
It was a Sampson prayer, a 22-footer from the corner, that began the move. That shot cut the lead to 90-74 and the Cavaliers then went on an 11-2 tear and all of a sudden it was 92-85 with 3:24 to go. By now, the clock was off and Carolina spread out, trying to hang on.
Carlisle made a three-pointer to make it 94-90 with 2:28 left. Braddock's two foul shots made it 96-90 but Wilson got another three-pointer to make it 96-93 with 1:44 to go. Matt Doherty then turned the ball over but the Cavaliers missed twice and Jordan made one foul shot to up the lead to 97-93.
But Miller followed Mullen's three-point miss from the corner with a falling down, spinning underhand shot. It was 97-95 and the 9,000 fans were about to explode the ceiling into the snowless sky.
But Braddock held the ball, his cool and the Tar Heels held onto the game, yet another treasure in a rivalry worth treasuring.