North Carolina State had a run-of-the-mill regular season. Playing much of the season unranked, the Wolfpack stumbled into the ACC tournament losing two of their last three. They finished the season with a hum-ho 17-10 record. They picked up some steam after winning the ACC tournament, but were seeded sixth.
Houston, on the other hand, was frightening. With soft-shooting lefty Michael Young, a junior who led the team in scoring, senior Larry Micheaux, who averaged nearly 14 points a game, and the uber-athletic Benny Anders, Houston was a solid team with these guys alone.
But then the roster included two of the greatest basketball players to ever take a basketball court. NBA Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon added a mix of speed, athleticism, size, skill and power that made this one of the best lineups in the history of college basketball.
And they played like it. After two early-season losses, Houston reeled off 26 straight victories. The Cougars roared through their schedule just dunking on people. After one game where the team had 29 dunks, a journalist gave the Cougars one of the coolest nicknames ever, “Phi Slama Jama.”
In its Final Four matchup with second-ranked Louisville, Houston’s prowess was on full display. While the top-ranked Cougars fell behind early, the power of that Houston lineup took hold. Trailing 57-49, they went on 21-1 run and beat Louisville (30-3) by 13.
The stage was set. The No. 1-ranked team in the nation, which hadn’t lost for nearly four months and had a record of 30-2, against the sixth-seeded Wolfpack, who needed overtime in the first round to get by 11th-seeded Pepperdine. The result, in the eyes of everyone outside of Raleigh, N.C., was not in doubt.
As Jim Valvano ran the floor searching for a hug after the game, you could see the pure shock on the faces of the Houston players. It was compete and total disbelief. With great coaching, North Carolina State slowed the mighty Cougars to a snail’s pace and effectively used the Hack-a-Shaq several times. Tied late in the game at 52 points, and in an ironic twist, North Carolina State pulled off the biggest upset in college basketball history by beating Phi Slama Jama on a last-second dunk.