Of all the miraculous victories North Carolina has pulled off in Dean Smith's 22 years as head coach, probably none of them rank with the comeback the Tar Heels staged here tonight in Carmichael Auditorium.
Trailing by 16 points in the second half, the No. 1 Tar Heels got a steal and dunk from Michael Jordan with 51 seconds left that gave them a 64-63 Atlantic Coast Conference victory over third-ranked Virginia that will be remembered as one of this league's greatest games ever.
Virginia had one last shot at winning, but Rick Carlisle, who had made only one of six shots, missed an 18-foot jumper at the buzzer. The Cavaliers had played nearly flawless basketball for 30 minutes and led, 63-53, with 4:12 remaining. But they couldn't score again against a defense that seemed to play with the energy of the 10,000 that made a maddening roar the final five minutes.
"In all the years I've been following North Carolina basketball, I never remember a comeback like this," said center Brad Daugherty. "When Michael Jordan stole the ball and dunked, I felt a pain shoot through my chest and I didn't have control of my senses. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was in another world."
Virginia (19-3, 7-2) scored 17 straight points, 11 at the start of the second half, to take a 42-28 lead. The Cavaliers led, 58-42, with 8:43 left on a base line jumper by Ralph Sampson, who again was the best player on the court this night. The memory of a 101-95 defeat by North Carolina three weeks ago seemed very fresh to the Cavaliers.
But his teammates his a cold spell from the field, thanks to a rejuvenated defensive effort by the Tar Heels.
Matt Doherty, Jordan and Jimmy Braddock scored the next nine points to bring North Carolina within 58-51 with 6:30 left. There was a feeling this one would be special.
Virginia called time with 6:18 left and got a basket from Carlisle. A three-point play from Jimmy Miller (after two free throws by Carolina) increased the lead to 63-53.
Braddock answered with his third three-pointer for 63-56. Doherty made two free throws for 63-58 after Sampson was called for his only personal foul while trying to rebound his missed shot.
Virginia's Othell Wilson fouled Sam Perkins, and he made two free throws to cut the lead to 63-60 with 2:54 remaining. The Cavaliers called time 13 seconds later, and with the 30-second shot clock turned off set up to stall the victory away.
Perkins fouled Sampson with 1:20 left, but Sampson missed in a one-and-one situation. Braddock missed a three-point attempt, but Jordan, who was off his jump-shooting form all night, tapped the ball in for a 63-62 Virginia lead.
Carlisle took the inbounds pass and was dribbling toward the time-line when Jordan slipped behind him and stole the ball.
"He didn't know I was there," Jordan said. "And he left the ball behind him (on the dribble). I just reached out and took it away."
Virginia called time with 23 seconds left and Coach Terry Holland presented the team with options: get the ball to Sampson if possible, if not to Carlisle for a jumper.
Sampson was covered by Perkins in back and Doherty in front. Carlisle had a clear shot at the basket, but missed. "We had a good crack at it," Holland said.
"We didn't mind him shooting from the outside," said Perkins. "We just didn't want the ball coming in to Ralph."
And when it was over, when Carolina had won its 18th straight and raised its record to 21-3 and 8-0 in the ACC, nobody would leave the auditorium. They stood in the aisles and applauded. The players and cheerleaders rolled in the floor.
And the Cavaliers stood motionless, many of them with hands on hips.
"It was a very disappointing loss for our kids," Holland said. "For 30 minutes we did as well offensively and defensively as we could have done against a team that powerful."
Carolina certainly did it with defense, because the Tar Heels weren't overpowering offensively. Jordan scored 18 points, but Perkins, who had 36 points in Charlottesville, was held to 10.
Jordan made only eight of 18 shots, Perkins three of 11, Braddock four of 10 and Doherty three of seven. As a team, Carolina shot 41 percent. But the Tar Heels shut off Craig Robinson in the second half. He scored 12 in the first half but only four in the second to finish with a team-high 16.
Sampson made seven of 12 shots and got 12 rebounds, but he was constantly trying to work around two and three Tar Heels who were cluttering the lane. And with little help from Robinson, Carolina's defensive effort was more effective, although Virginia surprisingly shot 62 percent (13 of 21) in the second half.
All of the emotion on this stormy Carolina night seemed lost on two Tar Heels, Smith and James Worthy, the hero of last year's NCAA champion team and now a Los Angeles Laker.
Smith was his usual self, talking about how well prepared Virginia was, how Virginia is the toughest team in the country to play, how this wasn't the game of the century.
Worthy was less wordy. "It was nice," he said quietly, "but in many ways it was just a typical North Carolina effort."