Looking Back... North Carolina's Road to the 1994 Crown
April 3, 2009
The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women crowned its first college basketball champion in 1973. The NCAA took over in 1982. Gradually the Immaculata’s and Delta State’s of the world were replaced at the top by UCLA, Southern California, Texas and Tennessee. But the ACC was shut out of the crown. To be sure, the league was competitive at the national level. Chris Weller at Maryland, Debbie Ryan at Virginia and Kay Yow at NC State put together top-notch programs. But at the end of the season, somebody else was cutting down the nets.
North Carolina would not have been the logical choice to break that dryspell, at least not in the early 1990s. Sylvia Hatchell took over the UNC program for the 1986-87 season. After going 19-10 in her first season in Chapel Hill, Hatchell went 45-68 over the next four. But Hatchell was busy recruiting and coaching her way into the league’s top tier. Some of her top recruits were from North Carolina: Tonya Sampson, a tough and skilled wing from Clinton, athletic forward Charlotte Smith from Shelby. Others were imports: 6’5” post player Sylvia Crawley from Ohio and Marion Jones, a basketball-track and field combination from California with speed never before witnessed on a women’s basketball court.
Hatchell says, “We weren’t thinking national championships. We were just trying to get out of the cellar. But I knew I had recruited some winners.” Smith, whose uncle is former NC State great David Thompson, adds, “UNC was at the bottom of the barrel. But it felt like family and I thought it was a challenge worth taking.”
The turnaround started in 1992, when the Tar Heels went 22-9 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They went 23-7 the following season, ending with a loss to Tennessee in the Sweet Sixteen.
Carolina began the 1993-94 season ranked ninth in the AP poll. Sampson and Crawley were seniors, Smith a junior, and Jones a freshman. They were joined in the starting lineup by junior Stephanie Lawrence, a classic complementary player. Their toughest local rival was Virginia. The Cavaliers won both regular-season meetings, 77-75 and 83-74 and finished at 15-1 in the ACC, to North Carolina’s 14-2. But North Carolina avenged the losses by defeating Virginia 77-60 in the ACC Tournament finals, North Carolina’s first tournament championship in a decade.
North Carolina was 27-2, ranked fourth in the polls, and the champions of the ACC Tournament. They were stunned when the NCAA seeded them third in the East Region, behind top-seed Connecticut and second-seed Vanderbilt. Fifteen years later, Smith still can’t hide the incredulity, “It most definitely was a slap in the face.” But coaches live for motivational moments and this was one that just dropped into Hatchell’s lap.
Opening in Chapel Hill, Carolina took out their anger on overmatched Georgia Southern. The Eagles didn’t have a starter taller than 5’10” and paid the price. Smith had 19 points and 15 rebounds, while Sampson and Jones added 19 and 18 points respectively. The Tar Heels hounded Georgia Southern into 26% shooting and 29 turnovers.
Second-round opponent Old Dominion was a tougher nut to crack. Hatchell replaced Sampson in the starting lineup with Tonya Cooper, saying that Sampson had not been practicing well. Hatchell says of Sampson, “We were always at each other. We love each other but we were always going at it.” Carolina led 27-25 at intermission and gradually pulled away in a tough, physical contest. It was 60-48, with 40 seconds left when several players fought for a loose ball on the floor.
Old Dominion’s Beth McGowan was atop the pile when the whistle stopped play. Smith attempted to pull McGowan off some Carolina players and McGowan took offense. The two squared off. Smith says, “She was in full attack mode. She kept coming after me. I tried to back away but she kept coming.” The two exchanged blows and were ejected.
UNC won 63-52. Smith and Crawley both had double-doubles, while Sampson helped sew up the win with six foul shots down the stretch.
The East Regional moved to New Jersey. Smith was suspended for the Sweet-Sixteen matchup against Vanderbilt. Losing Smith in any context would be big but Vanderbilt boasted one of the nation’s tallest teams, including 6’10” All-American Heidi Gillingham, whose 6’7” sister Gwen was a UNC reserve.
Sampson was back in the starting lineup and played one of her best games. But Vanderbilt led much of the second half and threatened to pull away on several occasions. It was 61-51 with 8:38 left. Hatchell switched to a 3-2 matchup zone and Carolina dug deep. “How bad did the kids want it?” says Hatchell. “They answered the question. We had great leadership.”
A Marion Jones 3-pointer cut the lead to two, at 64-62, with 3:06 left. Vanderbilt responded with a 5-0 run to go up by seven. But they wouldn’t score again. A Sampson lay-up on an assist by Jones gave UNC a 70-69 lead with 1:27 left. Each team came up empty before Vanderbilt’s Kelly Dougherty missed the first end of a 1&1 with 31 seconds left. Sampson made the first end of the bonus for 71-69 but missed the second. Gillingham missed inside and Sampson grabbed the rebound. She wrapped it up with two foul shots and the final was 73-69.
Sampson ended the game with 23 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists. Crawley fought the Vanderbilt giants for 22 points, while the unheralded Lawrence added 14.
Connecticut was next. Geno Auriemma was not yet a household name but the Huskies had made the 1991 Final Four, were the region’s top seed and were on a 23-game winning streak. Smith was back in the lineup but again Carolina was facing a huge front line that included 6’7” freshman Kara Wolters and 6’4” junior Rebecca Lobo. Smith says, “We thought we had a quickness edge inside and a lot of heart. So we weren’t going to be intimidated.”
Carolina also had big guards, while Connecticut had small guards. Hatchell remembers, “We raised our game to another level. It was a very physical game but our size on the perimeter bothered them.”
Once more Hatchell’s team had to rally in the second half. Connecticut led 39-36 at the intermission, 49-42 early in the second half. Sampson led the comeback. She hit a 3-pointer and a lay-up to cut the lead to two. A Sampson steal and lay-up tied the game at 51 and her three from the corner put UNC up by five.
Carolina pulled away down the stretch, winning 81-69. Sampson posted another masterpiece, 30 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists. Smith had 17 points and 7 rebounds, while Crawley added 13 points. Wolters led Connecticut with 23 points but the Tar Heels forced 30 Connecticut turnovers.
The Final Four was held in the sold-out Richmond Coliseum. North Carolina met Purdue in one semifinal, with Louisiana Tech and Alabama in the other. Purdue was ranked eighth nationally but had blitzed the West Region, winning by 47, 27, 26, and 17 points.
But the Boilermakers had no answer for Carolina’s athleticism. Hatchell recalls one play when Jones, “stole the ball falling out of bounds but maintained possession and made a pass. It was the most acrobatic move I’ve ever seen.” Smith adds, “By this point we felt like we could extend the court and attack against anybody.”
North Carolina jumped on top 26-13 early. Purdue fought back to take a 47-45 lead. Sampson tied it at 47 on a drive but also was called for her fourth foul on the play. Hatchell coped by going to a zone. On the other end of the court, Smith took over, scoring 12 points in a 22-7 run that salted away the win. Smith recalls, “being in a zone where I knew everything was going in. It might have been my best game.”
Purdue coach Lin Dunn called the game the “Charlotte Smith show” but also raved about Jones, who eventually would leave basketball for a stunning track career, “I don’t think I was prepared for Marion Jones,” he told the media following the game, “for her speed, extreme quickness, her ability to anticipate and get into the passing lanes.”
The final was 89-74. Smith led all scorers with 23 points, while Jones had 19 points, 5 assists, and 6 steals.
Louisiana Tech won the other semifinal, 69-66. The semifinals were held on Saturday, the title game the following day, Easter Sunday. Tech coach Leon Barmore complained of the quick turn-around. Hatchell says, “it was the Final Four. How can you be bothered by playing on consecutive days? You can’t let it be a factor.”
Louisiana Tech no longer is a member of the women’s basketball-elite but it was a recognized power in 1994, with 1982 and 1988 NCAA titles to their credit. Hatchell describes the title game as, “back and forth, lots of changing defenses, lots of mini-runs, never comfortable.”
The teams were tied at 32 after twenty minutes. UNC led 48-41 in the middle of the second half but went an agonizing eight minutes without a point, falling behind 53-48. Smith says, “it never felt like it was slipping away. We were tired but we had to suck it up.”
UNC rallied. Smith scored twice on put-backs. It was 57-57 when Tech’s 5’3” Pam Thomas hit a 17-footer with 15 seconds left.
Carolina got the ball to Sampson for the tie but she missed a contested six-footer. A scramble for the rebound resulted in a held ball. The possession arrow was pointing Carolina’s way but only 0.7 seconds remained. A timeout followed. Carolina hoped to get the ball inside to Crawley for a tip. But she was covered and Lawrence called another timeout. Time for Plan B. Hatchell thought that Tech’s attention to the interior might give Carolina some options further from the basket. She told her team that, “we’re going for the win.”
That meant a three-pointer. Smith had made all of eight three-pointers that season but Hatchell thought she would be open. Smith says, “I was so nervous that I had to ask my teammates if I was really the option.”
Lawrence again triggered the in-bounds pass. Sampson broke for the basket, Crawley went to the basket, both decoying Tech defenders and leaving Smith all alone. Lawrence hit Smith with the pass. The catch and shot were almost instantaneous.
“It felt like it happened in slow motion,” Smith recalls. “It felt good on release but it took forever to come down. The next thing I knew I was on the bottom of a pile, celebrating.”
Smith’s dramatic three-pointer nestled softly in the net, making the final 60-59 and giving the ACC its first NCAA title. Smith had 20 points and an astonishing 23 rebounds. She was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and was joined on the All-Final Four team by Sampson, who led all scorers with 21 points in the title game.
Hatchell and Smith are still at UNC. Smith is now an assistant at her alma mater, with her number 23 jersey hanging from the rafters. Hatchell says the win was crucial for the ACC, “We knew we were representing the ACC. We had talked about how good we were but we needed to do it on the court. I felt like the most blessed woman in the world.”
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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