Since the year I began covering college basketball, when I was assigned to the Duquesne Dukes beat in the 1987-88 season for The Pittsburgh Press, I’ve worked every NCAA championship game but two.
The first of those was in 1989. Our routine at the Press was to alternate Final Four coverage between the writer assigned to Duquesne and the one assigned to Pitt. I went in 1988 and saw Danny Manning and Kansas win the championship. The next year was to belong to the Pitt writer.
Midway through basketball season, though, our Pitt beat writer left for the competing publication, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Air fares were different then. “Non-refundable” wasn’t so much a thing. Figuring I now might get the chance to head to Seattle for the 1989 Final Four, because I was the only regular college basketball writer left at the paper, I got on the phone and booked a ticket. When our editors said the paper would send a writer who was covering Arizona spring training on a sort of side trip to Seattle — they thought it would be cheaper — I pointed out I already had a pretty reasonable fare lined up.
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“Who told you that you could do that?” was the answer.
So I did not cover the 1989 Final Four.
In 1993, a few months after the Press went out of business, I joined the staff of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. I understood the Final Four assignment would not be mine. I still wanted to be there for part of the weekend, because I was on the United States Basketball Writers board — and because it was the Final Four.
However, my wife had moved to Memphis just a few days earlier. I did not want to leave her alone in a strange city for long. I went to the Saturday games (thanks to my colleague Andy Katz for letting me sleep on his floor), stayed for the USBWA meeting on Monday morning, then drove back from New Orleans to Memphis to watch the championship game on television.
No. 1 Michigan vs. No. 1 North Carolina (1993 NCAA championship)
What I missed: The opportunity to be in the arena when Chris Webber called the timeout that didn’t exist and yet somehow has managed to endure nearly three decades.
Why I missed it: Because some things are bigger than the Final Four, even.
Date: April 5, 1993
Site: Superdome (New Orleans)
Rules at the time: 45-second clock, 3-point line set at 19 feet, 9 inches, clock did not stop after made baskets in final minute
Coaches: Steve Fisher (Michigan), Dean Smith (North Carolina)
Announcers: Jim Nantz, voice of the tournament since 1991, and Billy Packer, a Final Four broadcaster for more than three decades
When this game is discussed, it almost always is within the context of the timeout that wasn’t. All-American Chris Webber rebounded a missed free throw by North Carolina’s Pat Sullivan with 20 seconds left and Michigan trailing by two points. He felt the pressure of the moment, obviously, starting the gesture to call timeout, then looking to see if there was a guard available to advance the ball.
When Carolina’s George Lynch moved to cut off access for a pass to Michigan’s Jalen Rose, Webber panicked and stepped forward as he transitioned to instead dribble the ball. It was a clear travel, which was missed, but that might have been preferable to what happened next.
Webber advanced the ball and headed for the right corner, where North Carolina immediately applied a double-team trap just as Nantz was reminding the audience, “They have no timeouts remaining.” Packer had issued the same warning on Michigan’s earlier possession. Webber, though, tucked the ball into his forearms as he made the “T” gesture to signal for time. That’s an automatic technical foul: two free throws and possession of the ball were awarded to the Tar Heels.
That was it for Michigan’s chances to win a second championship in five years.
It’s a shame Webber’s championship game performance has been remembered for that blunder, because he was ridiculously good during his 33 minutes — or, let’s say, 32 minutes and 40 seconds — on the floor that night. He was the only Michigan player who uniformly played to his standard.
Guard Jimmy King scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds, but he also: allowed Donald Williams to beat him on a baseline drive that cut a 65-61 Wolverines lead in half; attempted a layup that was snuffed by Lynch and led to Derrick Phelps’ fastbreak layup for a 68-67 Carolina lead (that never was relinquished); and airballed a 3-pointer on UM’s next possession.
Guard Jalen Rose made the 3-pointer that built that 4-point lead, but he committed six turnovers, including one with the Wolverines trailing 70-67 that ultimately was turned into an Eric Montross layup for a 72-67 Carolina lead.
North Carolina got contributions from so many players, both subtle (reserve Kevin Salvadori sealing Webber on that Williams pullup) and overt (Williams hitting 8 of 12 from the field, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range).
The Tar Heels took great advantage of Michigan’s extreme concern with Montross inside. Although the Wolverines had three big bodies to throw at the matchup — Webber and Juwan Howard, along with 7-0 reserve Eric Riley — they constantly doubled down off shooters, particularly Williams.
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Following the game, in an interview with Nantz, Dean Smith revealed some sensitivity about how his first NCAA championship had been regarded by some. In 1982, with Georgetown trying to conjure a game-winning basket in the final seconds, Hoyas guard Fred Brown committed a memorable gaffe by throwing a pass to Tar Heels star James Worthy rather than one of his teammates.
Asked whether he immediately realized Michigan had no timeouts remaining when Webber called for one, Smith said it took him about two seconds to realize it. “We still had a good chance to win, anyway,” Smith said. “I really don’t want them to say, ‘Well, that’s another fluke.’”
It wasn’t. You don’t back into beating a team as good as those Wolverines, with a player as great as Webber at the core.
It was an interesting coincidence, though.
Final score: North Carolina 77, Michigan 71
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