12 Most Important Wins in History of North Carolina Tar Heels Basketball
Love them or hate them, nobody can deny the storied history of the North Carolina Tar Heels' basketball program. Whether you are a seasoned UNC fan or a newcomer to this basketball legacy, there are probably some things you don't know. I have made it my duty to be your liaison on this journey through the history of the Tar Heels.
With so many milestones throughout the years of Tar Heels basketball, it wasn't easy picking my top-12 wins. If you feel so inclined, you can check out the hefty list of Carolina's milestone wins there are to choose from.
With no further adieu, allow me blast you through history on my own Carolina time machine.
First NCAA Championship: Mar 23, 1957, UNC vs Kansas 54-53
At a time when college football was the primary concern and basketball rarely made television, this undefeated team of New Yorkers captured the interest of the entire country. Their run included multiple last-second finishes, along with ACC regular season and tournament championships.
All the 1956-57 team did was win and had a penchant for doing it in dramatic fashion. They had to win a triple overtime game just to get into the championship.
The 1957 NCAA Championship would match North Carolina up with the Kansas Jayhawks and Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain. The Tar Heels would be led by All-American forward Lennie Rosenbluth and guard Pete Brennan. Rosenbluth was their leading scorer and still holds the Carolina record for single-season scoring average.
The Tar Heels took a 29-22 lead into halftime, but the Jayhawks had a strong second half to take over the lead.
The Heels came back to tie it up at 46, forcing the first overtime in tourney history. It would take that and two more overtimes to finally clinch the title, marking the second triple overtime win in 24 hours for the New Yorkers of Carolina.
Joe Quigg stepped up his game in the third overtime—sinking two foul shots in the final six seconds and blocking Wilt Chamberlain on his last attempt.
Despite the Kansas loss, the legendary Jayhawk Wilt Chamberlain led all scorers with 23 and received the Most Outstanding Player award for the tournament.
The story of 1957 didn't end with the championship. Dean Smith was introduced to UNC Coach Frank McGuire at the Final Four in Kansas City, MO. What would have happened if those two never met? I'm glad we never have to know.
In 1958, Frank McGuire asked Dean Smith to join his staff as an assistant coach, and that's what he did for the next three years. When McGuire left in 1961, it marked the beginning of what would be the most historically significant years for North Carolina basketball.
First Win Under Dean Smith: Dec 2, 1961, UNC vs UVA 80-46
Bryan McSweeney and Jim Hudock each scored 20 points in the route of the Virginia Cavaliers. Larry Brown, who is best known as an NBA coach, scored 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds. As you can tell by the score, it wasn't much of a game—and 1961 wasn't much of a season either.
Due to scandals under their prior leadership, the Tar Heels only played 17 games and went 8-9 during Dean Smith's first season. This would be the only season North Carolina had a losing record under Coach Smith. He would also go on to lead the Tar Heels to 27 straight 20-win seasons. In the tail end of the 1960s, Dean Smith led his Tar Heels to three ACC Tournament titles and three straight Final Four appearances. I have one word for that—baller.
Unfortunately, he had to deal with John Wooden's UCLA Bruins during their historical run of 10 titles over a 12 year span. In fact, North Carolina lost to those same Bruins in the 1968 title game.
Dean Smith is most known for his utilization of the four corners offense that would run down the clock, leaving opponents with little time to score at the end of the game. Though it actually wasn't his creation, nobody did it better. As a matter of fact, the shot clock was introduced in 1985 to minimize its effect.
A few more things you may not know: Dean Smith also started the trend of scorers pointing to the player that gave them the assist, huddling at the free throw line and players raising their fist to let him know they are tired.
He also helped promote desegregation by recruiting North Carolina's first African-American scholarship basketball player Charlie Scott in 1966. It was a time when only a handful of others had received a scholarship from other southern schools.
Charlie Scott average 22.1 points per game during his stint as a Tar Heel and is currently sixth on UNC's all-time scorers list.
Dean Smith's First Title: Mar 29, 1982, UNC vs Georgetown 63-62
The 1981-82 Tar Heels had one of the best seasons in school history, finishing 32-2 in the end.
The 1982 NCAA Championship was played by a host of future Naismith and NBA Hall of Famers. Georgetown was coached by John Thomspon Jr., the father of current Hoyas coach John Thompson III. Their star player was future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.
The Tar Heels weren't short on Hall of Famers either. The team included the great Michael Jordan and James Worthy. Both were named on the list of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. Other players of note were Sam Perkins and Matt Doherty (who later coached at UNC).
This game quickly became an epic battle, as the two teams went back and forth on 15 lead changes. Patrick Ewing was dominant but so was Sam Perkins. “What about Jordan?” you say. The beginning of the Michael Jordan legacy would soon come to fruition.
Down one point with 17 seconds left, Michael Jordan hit the infamous jumper from the wing that put Carolina ahead for good.
On the ensuing possession, the Hoyas pushed it up the court and Georgetown guard Fred “Sleepy” Brown was caught napping and passed the ball right to James Worthy. Mistakenly, he wasn't fouled until two seconds remained. Despite two missed free throws by Worthy—and thanks to Coach Thomspon's misuse of his final timeout—the Hoyas didn't have enough time. The half-court shot fell short and into the waiting hands of Sam Perkins.
James Worthy led all scorers with 28 points and was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Michael Jordan finished his freshman campaign putting up 16 crucial points.
Patrick Ewing was also a freshman in 1982, but you wouldn't have known by watching. He had quite the day, scoring 23 points and bringing down 11 rebounds. On the flip side, he was called for goaltending five times.
First Win at Dean E. Smith Center: Jan 18, 1986, UNC vs Duke 95-92
Facing a slight delay, the arena named after Carolina's Hall of Fame coach wouldn't be opened until partially through the season. Though they didn't get to enjoy a full season in the Dean E. Smith Center, the timing was impeccable.
The first game in the Dean Dome pitted No. 1 UNC versus their archrival No. 3 Duke in a battle of the unbeatens.
The first Carolina basket made in the Smith Center was scored by center Warren Martin off a pass from another NBA great you may know—Kenny Smith. It stayed close for much of the game, but the Tar Heels managed to build a 16-point lead in the second half. That didn't last long, as Duke came storming back. In the end, it was not to be for the Blue Devils. This was Dean Smith's day, and not even the pesky Devils of Duke could tarnish his legacy.
Steve Hale knocked down 10 of 12 shots and led all scorers with 28 points. Brad Daugherty had an impressive game, adding another 23 points and 11 rebounds.
To this day, the Dean E. Smith Center stands as the eighth largest basketball arena in the world with a capacity of 21,750.
The Dean Dome isn't just about capacity—it's about history. This was the beginning, and history is still being written.
Dean Smith's Second Title: Apr 5, 1993, UNC vs Michigan 77-71
The 1992-93 Tar Heels actually lost to Michigan 79-78 in the semifinals of the Rainbow Classic early in the season. They also needed overtime to beat No. 2 seed Cincinnati and move on to the Final Four. There, Dean Smith would beat his alma mater Kansas, and Roy Williams would lose to his alma mater and coaching mentor.
The Tar Heels were highly regarded, but no team was touted like the Fab Five of Michigan. The team would include future NBA stars Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose. Jimmy Jackson and Jimmy King didn't work out as well in the NBA, but they were feared on the college hardwood.
The starting five for North Carolina was pretty fabulous too. Eric Montross and George Lynch dominated the inside game, while Brian Reese and Donald Williams handled the perimeter. Derrick Phelps was the general on the floor and was legendary for his defensive prowess, finishing his collegiate career with 247 steals.
The 1993 NCAA Championship provided all the drama a Tar Heels fan could possibly handle, and the end would be no disappointment to the rest.
North Carolina was holding on to a 73-71 lead with 19 seconds left in the game. After a missed free throw by Carolina, Chris Webber rebounded the ball and did a stutter step before he pushed the ball up the floor. The walk wasn't noticed by the referee, but karma would come back to bite Webber in the butt.
When he got to their side of the floor, Chris Webber called a timeout—oblivious to the fact they didn't have any left. This resulted in a technical foul and North Carolina went on to win 77-71.
Donald Williams was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, knocking down five of seven three-pointers and scoring 25 points in the championship. Lynch and Montross finished with 12 and 16, respectively.
Chris Webber scored a team-high 23 points for the Wolverines. As it turns out, karma would have bitten Chris Webber anyway, as the 1992-93 Michigan Wolverines had to vacate their season due to his acceptance of money from boosters.
877th Win Under Dean Smith: Mar 15, 1997, UNC vs Colorado 73-56
On October 9, 1997, Dean Smith shocked the world by announcing this would be his final season. Few knew that he was even considering retirement, but he did always say he would retire if he couldn't coach with the same enthusiasm. I'm glad he managed 36 years of enthusiasm!
On March 15, 1997, Dean Smith surpassed former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp with his 877th win.
Even without the aid of Vince Carter—who suffered a groin injury early in the game—North Carolina was determined to get the win for Coach Smith. The Tar Heels played with passion and had opened the lead up to 24 points with just four minutes to go. Colorado never had a chance.
At the buzzer, center Serge Zwikker ran to midcourt to snatch the ball from a Colorado player. After a short scuffle between the two, Zwikker raised the ball in victory and ran to the Carolina bench to hand the game ball to Smith.
There wasn't a dry eye on the floor and few in the stands, as 18 of his former players looked on. Much like Joe Paterno and fans of Penn State football, Dean Smith was all fans of North Carolina basketball knew.
Dean Smith's Tar Heels would move on to the Sweet 16 for the 15th time in 17 seasons. It didn't have the storybook ending we were all hoping for, but consistency is what Coach Smith bred.
Dean Smith would finish his collegiate coaching career at 879-254—a winning percentage of 78 percent.
After struggling under Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty, Smith did good by the Tar Heels one more time. He was the one that convinced Roy Williams to come back home to the Tar Heel state in 2003. Williams had previously declined the opening.
First Win Under Roy Williams: Nov. 22, 2003, UNC vs Old Dominion 90-64
Roy Williams served as an assistant to Dean Smith for 11 years before taking over as head coach at Kansas for the next 15. He finished his career at Kansas, leading them to nine conference championships and four Final Four appearances. The rest of his history would be made in Chapel Hill.
After the program had lost 36 games over two seasons, Roy Williams stood poised to flip the script.
The new head coach and UNC alum was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd, which included former coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge. With that, Roy Williams threw an autographed shirt into the crowd that read, “North Carolina basketball, worth coming home for.” Glad you felt that way, Roy. We're happy to have you!
The Carolina defense came to play, forcing Old Dominion to miss 22 of their first 29 shots. Over that span of about 20 minutes, UNC also caused 11 turnovers and six blocked shots.
The offense came to play too.
North Carolina shot 61 percent from the floor along their way to a 90-point outing. Sean May scored 17 points and added seven rebounds and three blocks to his totals. Raymond Felton was the point guard that night, but Rashad McCants managed to dish out eight dimes on top of his 18 points.
After ending the previous three seasons unranked, the Tar Heels finished '03-04 ranked. They had a 19-11 record. It was a marked improvement, but nobody could have predicted how quickly Williams would have them back to the Promised Land.
Roy Williams' First NCAA Title: April 4, 2005, UNC vs Illinois 75-70
This NCAA Championship boasted a who's who of college basketball circa 2005. Between the two teams, 11 players saw NBA action. Deron Williams of Illinois was the only one to gain star status in the NBA. Aside from him, only Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams and Luther Head still contribute in the NBA.
Carolina was in control most of the 2005 NCAA Championship, but Illinois kept it close with a few runs. Illinois went on a 10-0 run to tie it up at 65 before Raymond Felton hit a three-pointer in the faces of Deron Williams and Dee Brown with 5:08 left in the game.
The Fighting Illini would tie the game one more time at 70 with a three-pointer at the 2:39 mark. After a timeout, Rashad McCants took a wild shot on a reverse attempt, but Marvin Williams was there to follow it up and give Carolina a 72-70 advantage.
In the last 33 seconds, Raymond Felton would pick up a steal and a rebound, forcing the Illini to foul him. Felton missed his first free throw but would sink his next three to cement the 75-70 win.
Sean May led all scorers—going 10 for 11 from the floor and picking up a double-double with 26 points and 10 rebounds. He would also earn the honor of the tourney's Most Outstanding Player. McCants added another 14 points, while Raymond Felton finished with 17 points and seven assists.
North Carolina's 18th Final Four: Mar 29, 2009, UNC vs Oklahoma 72-60
This Elite Eight matchup pitted the NASCAR of college basketball against the powerful frontcourt of Oklahoma—led by Blake Griffin and his brother Taylor.
Like they had throughout the tournament, Carolina was putting it on the Sooners. They had an 11-point lead at the half, but Oklahoma did a good job of slowing up the uncanny pace of Roy Williams' Tar Heels. UNC had only scored 32 points at the halfway point.
At one point in the second half, the Tar Heels had a 61-40 lead and looked to run away with it. Oklahoma would not have it.
The Sooners went on a nine-point tear before Ty Lawson hit a couple free throws to slow down the run. From there, the Tar Heels never looked back.
Tyler Hansbrough and Blake Griffin had the epic battle that many had expected to see. They were two of the toughest players in college basketball at that time. Griffin got the best of Hansbrough statistically, but it never really felt like it.
Blake Griffin finished the day with 23 points and 16 rebounds to Tyler Hansbrough's eight points and six rebounds. Hansbrough did his job frustrating Griffin. The Sooners frontcourt was just too tough—even for Psycho T. He did aid the team in other ways, however, with three assists and two steals.
Just the day before, Roy Williams had said, “If you say, Tyler, you're going to have eight points and seven rebounds but North Carolina is going to win, he's going to be the happiest guy in town.”
With the win, North Carolina would move on to a record 18th Final Four appearance.
Roy Williams' Second NCAA Title: April 6, 2009, UNC vs Michigan State 89-72
The Tar Heels powered through the brackets this year with their relentless defense, fast breaks and overall dominance. Nobody came within double-digits of North Carolina in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. The closest win for the Tar Heels was the12-point margin they finished with versus Oklahoma.
The 2009 NCAA Championship would be no different.
Despite playing in front of what was essentially a home crowd for Michigan State in Detroit, MI, North Carolina asserted its dominance from the outset. I can only imagine what the outcome would have been if this game was played in Greensboro, NC!
By the half, the Tar Heels had scored a tournament record 55 points and built the largest halftime lead in tournament history at 21. By the 15:02 mark, Ty Lawson broke the tournament record with his eighth steal of the game.
With 1:03 left in the game, Roy Williams called a timeout. In the previous four championships that timeout would have been for strategic purposes. The average margin of victory in those games was a mere three points. That would not be the case on this day in the Motor City.
The Tar Heels had maintained the lead throughout the game and never let up. With possession and an 87-70 lead, Roy Williams called the aforementioned timeout to pull his starters.
Roy Williams would pick up his second title in six years at Chapel Hill—after the title had proven so elusive in his 15 years at Kansas. Not only does that speak to Williams as a coach, but it also speaks to the program Dean Smith and numerous others had worked so hard to build.
The '08-09 team would finish 34-4 on the season, and none of this would have been possible if Hansbrough, Lawson and Ellington had gone into the 2008 NBA Draft. They chose to stay, hoping to win the championship they felt they should have won in 2008.
North Carolina's 2000th Win: Mar 2, 2010, UNC vs Miami 69-62
On this night, the North Carolina Tar Heels became the second school in NCAA history to reach 2,000 wins—Kansas quickly followed. Currently, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina are the only schools with 2,000 wins, but rival Duke is closing in on the mark.
This wasn't as much of a game as the score would indicate. The Tar Heels carried a 10-point lead into the half and never looked back. Carolina had built up an 18-point lead, but Miami stormed back and cut the deficit to one point in the final three minutes. They would never gain the lead.
Miami guard Durand Scott was the only real offensive threat to the Tar Heels. He put up 29 points in a great effort, but it just wasn't enough on this night.
Will Graves led all Tar Heels with 16 points and went 4 for 8 from three-point range. Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard combined for 26 points in their final game at the Dean Dome.
What a great way to go out as a senior. Their final game at Chapel Hill was North Carolina's 2,000th win.
North Carolina's 600th ACC Win: Jan 31, 2012, UNC vs Wake Forest 68-53
On this day in history, North Carolina became the first ACC school to reach 600 conference wins. As one should suspect, Duke is also closing in on the mark. They will probably reach it within the next two years, but the Tar Heels have a nice lead. Only Maryland, NC State and Wake Forest have even reached the 400-win mark.
Though they won this game by a healthy margin, North Carolina didn't make it very easy on themselves. The team was only able to make 31 percent of their shots—a reoccurring theme for the '11-12 Tar Heels. They made up for it by snatching up 21 offensive rebounds for a total of 50 in the game.
This would be Tyler Zeller's night. He had one of those signature Zeller performances, dominating every aspect of the frontcourt game. He finished the night with nine offensive rebounds for a total of 18, and he had three blocks, scored 18 points and went 8 of 8 from the free-throw line.
The Tar Heels made up for their offensive woes by doing a pretty stellar job on defense. Every starter had a block, including four from John Henson. The team had 12 all together, along with seven steals.
After the game, Coach Williams said, “It was an ugly game and sometimes you have to win ugly if you're going to have a great year.”
We can only hope those ugly wins of 2011-12 will add up to something big.
The game itself wasn't much of a tale, but it was another notch in the history of one of the greatest programs in all of college sports.