Crowning Moments in the Queen City: High Tech in 1990 & 1993
Feb. 5, 2008
By Steve Phillips
By 1990, Charlotte sat abuzz over the Hornets, a two-year-old NBA franchise that played its home games at the new Charlotte Coliseum. That venue, a 24,000-seat crown jewel that sat just off I-77 and the Billy Graham Parkway, was also a prime venue for the college game.
Prime enough for the Atlantic Conference Men's Basketball Tournament, which returned to the Queen City after a 20-year hiatus.
The new Coliseum hosted eight ACC Tournaments, including three that featured Duke and North Carolina teams that would go on to win national championships. Considering the arena was nicknamed the "The Hive," perhaps it was only fitting that the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets also found Charlotte to their liking.
It came as no major surprise when Coach Bobby Cremins' team emerged victorious at the 1990 ACC Tournament. A veteran squad that featured All-America junior sharpshooter Dennis Scott and senior leader Brian Oliver felt it was due ACC Tournament success after faltering in the opening round each of the previous three seasons. Throw in the addition of electric freshman point guard Kenny Anderson, and the pieces were finally in place.
But Georgia Tech prevailed again in 1993, this time with a team that entered the tournament as a No. 6 seed playing anything but consistent basketball. The Yellow Jackets defeated defending national champion Duke in the opening round and turned back eventual 1993 national champion North Carolina in the title game.
"I felt like my first two championship teams (in 1985 and 1990) had a chance to win it, but I didn't think those guys (1993) had a chance," Cremins admitted. "After the up-and-down year we had, who could have predicted this?"
It may not have been predicted, but it deserves due note. The ACC has held 54 men's basketball tournaments. Schools from outside the state of North Carolina have won the championship just eight times.
1990: Heads Up All the Way
Carolyn Cremins tried not give in to superstition. But by day two of the 1990 ACC Tournament, the wife of Georgia Tech's coach began to believe in omens.
She found a penny in the parking lot when she arrived for Friday night's quarterfinal game against NC State. She found another beneath her seat when she arrived for Saturday's semifinal meeting with Duke.
"And they were both face up," she said.
If the Yellow Jackets had luck on their side, tangible things were working as well.
Tech, seeded third in the competitive tournament field, saw Scott, Oliver and Anderson combine for 62 points in a 76-67 win over NC State.
The Tech trio - dubbed "Lethal Weapon III" for good reason - keyed an 83-72 win over second-seeded Duke to set up a championship meeting with Virginia. Scott and Oliver each tallied 31 points against the Blue Devils.
"Georgia Tech's maturity with Scott and Oliver was the key the basketball game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They were able to come back and sustain 40 minutes longer than we were. At times we looked young in our decisions. We didn't think well. These games are like prize fights, and they can go 15 rounds."
Fifth-seeded Virginia, which outlasted UNC in overtime in the quarterfinals and clipped Clemson 69-66 in the semis, joined the Yellow Jackets in making history. It marked the first time an ACC championship game had not featured at least one team from the state of North Carolina.
Both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels would find a measure of redemption in the NCAA Tournament. Duke reached the title game before falling to UNLV. UNC secured its 20-win season while reaching the Sweet 16, upsetting top-seeded Oklahoma on Fox's last-second basket in the second round of the Midwest Regional.
But first came the 1990 ACC Tournament championship game. It marked a curtain call for veteran Virginia coach Terry Holland, who had announced the 1990 season would be his last. Holland, sporting a flat-top haircut and appearing loose and relaxed, insisted throughout the weekend that his 16th tournament didn't feel much different than his first.
But Krzyzewski, among others, was happy the Cavaliers' championship game appearance would allow Holland to at receive at least some of his due.
"With all that's been going on, I don't think there's been enough written and said about this being Terry's last time," Krzyzewski said.
Holland coached his Virginia teams to 326 wins, eight 20-win seasons and 13 postseason tournaments. Two of his squads reached the Final Four. But the 1990 ACC Tournament offered no storybook ending.
Instead, the championship game began in magical fashion for Tech's Oliver, who threw up two wild bank shots in the opening minutes that found their mark and left the Yellow Jackets feeling as if they were indeed destiny's team.
"I won't lie to you, I didn't `call' those things," Oliver laughed. "I didn't call it off the glass. But luck never happens twice."
The Yellow Jackets finished the day shooting just a shade above 40 percent and lost the rebounding battle. But Tech sank 10 shots from 3-point range and limited Virginia to a 34 percent shooting day in a 70-61 win. The Yellow Jackets used the victory as a springboard to a 28-win season and the program's first appearance in the Final Four.
Oliver, voted tournament MVP, leaped atop the scorer's table at game's end and saluted Tech's cheering section. For Bobby Cremins, the win meant cause for reflection.
The ACC Tournament had last been played at Charlotte in 1970, Cremins' senior year at South Carolina. The Gamecocks, seeded first in the tournament field, saw their national championship hopes ended with a double-overtime loss to NC State in the title game.
Cremins lost the ball in closing seconds of the second overtime, resulting in the Wolfpack's go-ahead basket and leaving him devastated at game's end. Even though he coached Georgia Tech to the 1985 ACC Tournament championship in Atlanta, the 1990 title in Charlotte finally offered a sense of closure.
"It was a nightmare, but without that moment I wouldn't be here," Cremins said as he reflected on the 1970 loss. "Thank God I stayed healthy. I'm back. I'm disguised as Dennis Scott, Brian Oliver and Kenny Anderson, but I'm back."
And Carolyn Cremins felt fortune had smiled one more time. As she left her hotel room on Sunday morning, she had discovered a third lucky penny.
"Face up (again)," she reported, then paused for a moment of thought.
"Bobby could've planted the one this morning."
1993: Expect the Unexpected
The roller coaster ride that carried Georgia Tech into the 1993 ACC Tournament almost defied description.
The Yellow Jackets were a team that had beaten a No. 1-ranked Duke team and lost by 17 points to College of Charleston. Tech arrived in Charlotte with a 16-10 overall record, and an 8-8 conference mark that summed up the ebb and flow of an unpredictable season.
"I feel like I've already been through March Madness," Bobby Cremins said. "I mean, we've been through so much already this season."
Almost from the start, it became apparent that the 1993 ACC Tournament would play out in unpredictable, if not bizarre fashion.
Friday's quarterfinal round ended with only No. 1 North Carolina left standing among the tournament's top four seeds. Seventh-seeded Clemson upset second-seeded Florida State, and No. 5 Virginia edged No. 4 Wake Forest.
The final game of the evening pitted the sixth-seeded Yellow Jackets against third-seeded Duke. It evolved into a hard-fought, close contest in which Tech sophomore James Forrest refused to be denied.
Forrest, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward, connected on an eye-opening 13 of 15 shots from the floor, including the go-ahead basket in the closing moments. The Yellow Jackets hung on for a 69-66 win when Blue Devil freshman Chris Collins' 3-point shot from NBA range rimmed out at the buzzer.
A late winter storm dumped to close to a foot of snow on the area surrounding the Charlotte Coliseum on Saturday, triggering a power outage that held up the first semifinal game between North Carolina and Virginia for 28 minutes.
That wasn't all that proved a departure from expected form.
Forrest was at it again in Saturday's second semifinal game, muscling in 26 points in Tech's 69-61 win over Clemson. He got help from guard Drew Barry, who tied an ACC Tournament record by handing out 13 assists.
"It's exciting after an inconsistent year to be in the championship game," Cremins said. "I just hope we can come out and play well tomorrow and not be satisfied with where we are now."
Georgia Tech would be matched against North Carolina, which defeated Virginia by 18 points and had beaten the Yellow Jackets twice during the regular season by double-digit margins.
With higher tournament seeds falling at every turn, some felt the top-seeded Tar Heels were walking a well-cleared path to their third tournament title in five years. Junior center Eric Montross begged to differ.
"It may be tougher," Montross countered. "(Tech) didn't win these first two games by accident. It looks to me like we're catching a team on a roll."
Montross' words moved a step closer to proving prophetic on Sunday afternoon, when UNC starting point guard Derrick Phelps did not suit up for the championship game. Phelps had suffered a lower back injury in the closing minutes of the semifinal win over Virginia.
With Phelps absent and Forrest still carrying the Yellow Jackets' fortunes on his broad shoulders, Georgia Tech built a 41-37 halftime lead in the title game.
"It was like somebody stuck him with a pitchfork," Montross said of Forrest, who was on his way to tallying a grand total of 80 points and 21 rebounds in three tournament games. "He was hot."
The Tar Heels rallied in the second half and built a five-point lead of their own but couldn't pull away from the determined Yellow Jackets.
"Whenever they made a run, we fought it off," Barry said. "We kept our composure and stayed confident."
With Forrest (27 points, 10 rebounds) showing the way, Tech forged ahead down the stretch. The final buzzer found the Yellow Jackets on top 77-75, a margin narrowed to two when North Carolina's Donald Williams threw in a 3-point shot at the buzzer.
"We realize North Carolina was not at full strength without Derrick Phelps," Cremins said. "He's the best defensive player in our conference. But we had to make the most of the opportunity."
Tar Heel coach Dean Smith brushed aside questions concerning his junior guard's absence.
"There's no asterisk saying, `Carolina didn't have Derrick Phelps,' " Smith said.
Phelps would return later in the week and play a key role in North Carolina's national title march. But ACC Tournament Championship Sunday belonged to James Forrest and Georgia Tech. Forrest, who failed to make even third-team All-ACC, was the unanimous choice in Everett Case Award balloting.
"I definitely came in there looking for some respect because I thought I was overlooked," Forrest said.
There would be no overlooking Tech when it came to the NCAA Tournament field. Though the Yellow Jackets likely would have been an at-large selection after winning their first two ACC Tournament games, the championship win over North Carolina clinched an automatic berth.
Even a disappointing loss to Southern in the opening round couldn't change the fact that, for three days in Charlotte, Georgia Tech had reached its full potential by playing like one of college basketball's best.
"It was great winning the ACC Tournament in 1990," senior center Malcolm Mackey said. "But this might be even better. It was unexpected by everyone, including me."
"Crowning Moments in the Queen City" returns on February 19.