SPRINGFIELD, MASS., NOV. 21 -- Dean Smith gets so few chances to be an underdog. Today, he took full advantage of a rare opportunity.
Opening the season against the top-ranked team in the country with his best player back home in Chapel Hill, Smith and North Carolina came into the Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic as decided underdogs to Syracuse. Smith, naturally, milked the role for all it was worth. "I just hope we can get a rebound," he said this week.
North Carolina rebounded. It also hit crucial shots -- one of them an extraordinarily lucky one -- and made a comeback that was remarkable even by its standards, beating the Orangemen in overtime, 96-93, before 9,128 at the Springfield Civic Center.
"That's a fun way to start the season," said Smith, who suspended star sophomore J.R. Reid and reserve forward Steve Bucknall for this game after they were arrested after an incident in a tavern last month. "We're used to having teams celebrate when they beat us. Today, we did the celebrating."
They earned their celebration. Syracuse led, 59-45, with 15:30 to play and looked ready to blow the Tar Heels right out of the frigid building. Rony Seikaly -- 23 points -- and Derrick Coleman -- 14 points, 13 rebounds -- were dominating the inside and Sherman Douglas had looked like the guard of the decade in the first half with 17 points on eight-of-10 shooting.
"I can't ever remember a team running the fast break on us the way they did in the first half," Smith said. "The second half, we just decided to back it in on Seikaly to keep him from setting a world record on us."
The collapsing defense worked. With red-shirt freshman Pete Chilcutt and freshman Rick Fox playing superbly inside, the Tar Heels pushed Syracuse away from the basket. Chilcutt, in his first college game, finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, including a shot at the end of regulation that hit the left side of the rim and the backboard before dropping through to tie the game. Fox had 15 points and Scott Williams 14.
That was the surprise in the game, the effectiveness of UNC's young inside players. Smith had counted on his veteran guards, Ranzino Smith (21 points) and Jeff Lebo (20), to hold his team together, and they did just that. But it was the baby front line that did the job down the stretch.
"The first half, they played us pretty much straight up and we got the ball inside," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim. "But when they packed it back, we needed help on the perimeter and didn't get it."
Part of the problem was Douglas, missing in action during the second half. He shot one for nine the last 25 minutes and had six turnovers, five in the last nine minutes of play. The other problem was Boeheim's decision to stick with nonshooter Earl Duncan even after Matt Roe had come in to make three of four three-pointers. With Douglas cold and Roe watching, there was no one to force the Tar Heels' defense to extend.
"The big problem was that we stopped moving," Douglas said. "The guys just got on the blocks inside and stood so they weren't able to get open. If we move, we get open. We did them a big favor."
For 25 minutes, Syracuse did the Tar Heels few favors. When Roe hit a bomb to make it 59-45, it looked like a romp. But North Carolina came back. Williams, invisible the first half, hit three times and then Ranzino Smith went to work. His three-point play after he had blocked a Douglas shot cut the lead to 63-57 with 11:39 left. Smith drove the lane to make it 63-59. In little more than four minutes, UNC had shaved 10 points from the lead.
But the Orangemen hung on to the lead and were still up, 80-74, after Seikaly's move up the middle with 4:07 to go. But Lebo knocked down a three-pointer, stole the ball from Douglas and fed Smith, who made it 80-79. Boeheim called time and decided to slow his offense, holding the ball until the last 10 seconds of each possession. It was a mistake.
Seikaly hit one free throw to make it 81-79 but Kevin Madden (12 points) tied the game at 81 with a layup off another Douglas turnover with 1:18 left. Syracuse held again, Douglas missed and, with North Carolina seemingly holding for one shot, Smith went backdoor and made it 83-81 on a Lebo pass with 30 seconds left. Seikaly tied it with two foul shots 19 seconds later and Coleman promptly stole the inbounds pass from Chilcutt, who later claimed Coleman had reached out-of-bounds to grab it. "No way," Coleman said. "I just stole it."
It looked like he had stolen the game when he made both free throws. That put Syracuse back up, 85-83, with 10 seconds to go. North Carolina, not calling time, went to Lebo, looking for three. But Douglas and Seikaly double-teamed him. Lebo, calm as could be, flipped it to Chilcutt in the lane. His 10-footer hit, hit, hung and went in.
"It was a lucky shot," Chilcutt said. "I saw it hit the rim and thought I'd missed, but then it bounced . . . "
It bounced right into overtime. There, the game see-sawed for four minutes, before Madden, off another Douglas turnover on a lob inside, was fouled and made two shots to put Carolina up for good, 92-91, with 37 seconds left. Douglas tried to go inside one more time to a triple-teamed Seikaly. That was his last turnover and, when Lebo hit two free throws, the Tar Heels looked solid. Douglas missed a three-pointer, Roe was fouled with six seconds to go and, after he made both, the Tar Heels broke the press and Fox dunked at the buzzer.
"It's great to win when people don't expect you to win," Dean Smith said, smiling. That is a line he has used very rarely in 27 years of coaching. Today, he was entitled.