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On Thursday, March 13, 1997, the North Carolina Tar Heels prepared to face the Fairfield Stags in what was expected to be an easy first-round game and a historic night for legendary head coach Dean Smith, who was one victory shy of tying Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp for the
What seemed like a coronation nearly became an aberration as a game Fairfield team coached by Paul Cormier unexpectedly challenged North Carolina for 39 minutes before becoming just another No. 16 seed to lose to a No. 1 seed.
This version of “Thursday Treasures” reexamines Fairfield’s incredible performance and Smith’s incredible accomplishment during this wonderful game from the 1997 NCAA Tournament.
Game Nuggets: Here are five facts to establish the setting of the game.
1. This game took place at Wake Forest University’s beautiful Lawrence E. Joel Coliseum in Winston Salem, North Carolina. With its big Demon Deacon head and gorgeous parquet court, the Lawrence E. Joel Coliseum was one of my favorite first- and second-round sites of the NCAA Tournament, especially in 2000, when Illinois beat Penn, Florida survived Butler on a Mike Miller buzzer beater, and De Paul and Kansas played an exciting overtime game.
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4. Despite this early-season loss at Lawrence E. Joel, the Tar Heels had to be feeling good after having to travel only 55 miles from Chapel Hill. Of all the teams in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, North Carolina had the shortest travel route in the first and second rounds.
5. Called by the incredible announcing duo of Sean McDonough and Bill Raftery, this game aired during the first portion of the evening block of games. In other words, this game would have started around 7:15 eastern time.
North Carolina Game Nuggets: Here are 5 quick facts about the 1996/1997 Tar Heels.
1. Entering this game, Dean Smith was seeking his 876th career coaching victory, which then would have tied Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp for the most in NCAA Division-I. Interestingly enough, Smith and Rupp faced each other seven times, with Smith’s Tar Heels holding a 5-2 advantage against Rupp’s Wildcats.
2. Even though North Carolina was a No. 1 seed, this Tar Heels team had its struggles at different points in the season, despite its 24-6 record at the time (the Tar Heels would finish 28-7 on the year). After losing to Wake Forest, North Carolina blew 20-plus point leads in its next two ACC games, respective home and road losses against Maryland and Virginia, to begin 0-3 in the ACC.
3. The Tar Heels nearly fell to 0-4 in the ACC, but ultimately rallied late to defeat North Carolina State in its fourth ACC game. The Tar Heels would finish 11-5 in the ACC (second to Duke) and win the ACC Tournament with a victory against N.C. State.
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5. While Jamison, Williams and Carter were stars on this team, Zwikker and Cota were significant contributors. Seemingly a stylistic outlier on this Carolina team, the awkward Zwikker finished third-team all-ACC. As for Cota, he became the first freshman since Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson to lead the ACC in assists, and the first Tar Heel to do so since senior Jimmy Black in 1982, a season during which North Carolina defeated Georgetown for Smith’s first national championship.
1. Located in Fairfield, Connecticut, and members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), Fairfield was coached by Paul Cormier, who played in high school for former Villanova head coach Rollie Massimino. Cormier became an assistant coach for Massimino at Villanova, and had a heavy hand in recruiting many of the players from the 1985 Wildcats team that shocked Georgetown to win the NCAA championship.
3. Despite what the record may seem to say, Fairfield was a talented team that was predicted to win the MAAC in 1996-1997 after going 20-10 and making the NIT in 1996. Unfortunately, the Stags were riddled by injuries, especially to forward Shannon Bowman, who would play much of the season, including this game, with bone chips in his feet.
4. To reach the NCAA Tournament, the Stags upset regular-season champion Iona in the first round of the 1997 MAAC tournament and then beat St. Peter’s and Canisius.
5. The Stags were led by a gritty group of players, including senior guard Greg Harris (14.3 points per game), the only Fairfield player to average in double-digits during the season. The senior Bowman (9.8 points per game), who played power forward at an undersized 6’4’’, and freshman John Tice (9.0 points per game) were also major contributors during this season and in the Carolina game. Sophomore point guard Kyle Commodore (5.4 points per game) would also step up on this night.
A Bargain Find: Here is a quick summary of the game’s events if you choose not to watch the game.
Carolina Gold: Serge Zwikker. After scoring just 3 points in the first half, and leaving many easy baskets unfinished, Zwikker picked it up big time in the second half, scoring 16 of his 19 points. Zwikker was just too big for the Stags to handle in the second half, especially when his soft shooting touch got going, and added 13 rebounds.
Fairfield Gold: Greg Francis. In his final college game, Francis scored a game-high 26 points on 8-of-13 shooting. All 8 of Francis’ made fields came from behind the three-point line.
Carolina Silver: Ed Cota. The freshman point guard scored just two points but sliced up the Fairfield zone in the second half, ending up with 10 assists and running great offense in the crucial minutes of the second half.
Fairfield Silver: John Tice. The freshman played a fearless game, with 14 points.
Carolina Bronze: Vince Carter: Finishing with a team-high 22 points, Carter was too athletic for the Stags to handle.
Fairfield Bronze: Shannon Bowman. While physically limited, Bowman added 14 points on an efficient 6-of-10 shooting.
Masterpiece Performances: For each team, I want to acknowledge 10 offensive plays that were not previously detailed.
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Carolina Offensive Gems:
1. Carter with a beautiful pass and dive to the basket (@6:24 to 6:29)
2. Jamison with a beautiful cut within the Fairfield zone for a lay-up (@11:13 to 11:18)
4. Carolina with a great job attacking the baseline at the back of Fairfield zone with a Jamison backdoor alley oop (@25:02 to 25:07) and beautiful use of baseline (@25:44 to 25:49)
5. Cota with a beautiful no-look pass to Jamison (@29:04 to 29:09)
6. Jamison using his butt to get great post position (@44:47 to 44:52)
7. Zwikker with a nice move on the baseline (@47:16) and beautiful half hook (@49:49 to 49:54)
8. Williams with a beautiful jump stop in the lane for a layup (@51:00 to 51:05)
9. Carter follows his own missed three (57:45 to 57:50)
10. Zwikker taking over in the second half (@47:11 to 47:16, @52:42: to 52:47, @1:04:22 to 1:04:27)
Fairfield Offensive Gems:
1. Tice continuing to attack the basket (@21:33 to 21:38, @1:02:22 to 1:02:27)
2. Bowman showing great patience within the middle of the zone (@22:47 to 22:52)
4. Darren Phillip with a nice finish on a feed from Bowman (@35:14 to 35:19)
5. Commodore with a big three to silence the Carolina crowd after the game was tied (@39:10 to 39:15)
6. Francis with a big three to keep Fairfield in the game (@43:10 to 43:24)
7. Francis with another stone-cold three (@47:28 to 47:33)
8. A beautiful post feed to Bowman for a layup (@54:08) and a nifty finish by Bowman by using his body (@1:10:30 to 1:10:35)
9. Just beautiful Fairfield offense (@57:18 to 57:23)
10. Francis refusing to let his team with some more threes (@1:03:58-1:04:03, 1:13:45 to 1:13:50)
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Defensive Diamonds: Here are five great defensive plays from this game.
1. Francis gets back after rushing a three to break up a Carolina alley oop (@10:00 to 10:15)
2. Bowman with a surprise block (@15:10 to 15:15)
4. Okulajia with a big block (@43:59 to 44:04)
5. Zwikker has a block party (@59:49 to 1:00:10)
Passing Pearls: Here are two great dimes, one from each team.
1. Williams with an unbelievable baseline pass for a layup (@20:50 to 20:55)
2. Commodore with a behind-the-back pass that gets the crowd going (@39:30 to 40:18)
Awesome Announcing: Here are a few standout calls or observations.
1. McDonough predicts a Harris three (@43:18 to 43:24) and uses subtlety, mentioning in the second half (and for the first time all game) that a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed (@46:25 to 46:30) rather than beating this in the audience’s head right away.
2. Raftery makes a great comparison of Bowman to the Meat Hook, Florida’s Demetrius Hill (@13:18 to 13:23).
1. Fairfield’s Cormier did a great job of designing a game plan in which the Stags ran a Princeton-style offense, using clock to get good shots. Overall, Fairfield ran nice offense to get open threes all night.
2. It’s no wonder Smith ended up with 879 career wins. He never panicked but did not rest on his laurels, bringing pressure at the start of the second half, using Zwikker’s size to his team’s advantage, including two over-the-top layups off inbounds plays, and exploiting the back side of the zone.
Cream of the Crop: Smith would get his record-setting 877th career win two days later against Colorado (to be covered soon on The College Basketball Nostalgic) and the Tar Heels would reach the 1997 NCAA Final Four, his 11th. Smith would retire at the end of this season. His 877 career coaching wins would eventually be broken by Bob Knight, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski.