For 15 years, we've wondered what it might've been like if Vince Carter hadn't tried to dunk that pass from Ed Cota too hard.
If you were there, you know what I'm talking about. On Feb. 5, 1998, Cota brought the ball down on the fast break against Duke, lobbed the ball off the Smith Center glass, and perfectly set up Carter for a two-handed dunk. Coming as it did in the middle of a colossal Carolina run, it was a potentially tectonic-shaking play.
But Carter missed. Most of the 22,000 in the building that night were already out of their seats, leaping into the air to celebrate the absolute I-was-there play of our Tar Heel fan lifetimes. But..."I tried to dunk it too hard," Carter has explained.
Still, that moment lives. Talk to someone who was there, and they'll tell you that you've never seen a play like it. And if he had made it...
We'll never know.
Until now. And now, it stinks.
Miami was leading 68-46 midway through the second half on Saturday. They'd been lava-hot for the better part of the half, and were entering the part of the game when they knew they'd get the win and were concentrating more on entertaining themselves than on executing fundamental basketball. Already, 292-pound Reggie Johnson had hoisted one three-pointer just to see what might happen (he was one of the very few Hurricanes to miss from beyond the arc); in a few seconds, he would fire another.
That was the mood when Shane Larkin attacked the Carolina defense after a miss. The sophomore point guard, who is becoming one of the league's best players, flipped the ball off the backboard, where it was received by Kenny Kadji, who authoritatively slammed it through.
It was the only time in my memory of following the Tar Heels that a team has executed the play against Carolina, although I'll admit that therapy took care of the memories of part of 8-20. It was one of the very few times I've even seen it attempted in a game since that 1998 night in Chapel Hill, the one when Carter left us all wondering what it might have been like if he'd done it.
Well, now we know. It would have been demoralizing. It would have left the opponent feeling a little helpless, like they had struggled just to compete on the basketball court and now the opposition was entertaining themselves with circus tricks.
It was unlike almost anything I can remember in my history of watching the Tar Heels. It was like something the Globetrotters would do to the Generals, and isn't one of our birthrights that we are supposed to be the Globetrotters?
Fewer than eight thousand people were inside the Bank United Center when it happened. Somehow, though, the reverberations seem a little louder when you look across from the Tar Heel bench and see LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who had spent most of their afternoon looking disinterested and/or sending text messages, suddenly standing, cheering and smiling.
It also unfortunately felt rather familiar. It's the fifth time this year (Indiana, Texas, Virginia and NC State were the others, not that you want to remember any of them) that Carolina was the victim of a run just like the one Miami executed on Saturday. Following a James Michael McAdoo post-up that cut the Hurricane lead to 44-29, the home team went on a 15-4 blitzkrieg. Their advantage eventually ballooned to as many as 28 points, and at one point they made an absurd 9 out of 10 three-pointers.
"The more experienced a team is, sometimes they can handle that stuff a little better," Roy Williams said. "They can say, 'Alright, you can enjoy this, but we're going to come get you.' Right now, our team is not at that level."
This is especially concerning because the next stop on the 2012-13 season happens to be Cameron Indoor Stadium, a place that contains both of the traits that have been most vexing for the Tar Heels this year: a very good opponent and a rowdy environment.
"This is another game where a team made a run on us, and we weren't able to be composed on the offensive end," said Marcus Paige, who shot 1-of-9 but finished with four assists and no turnovers. "We tend to turn one bad possession into three bad possessions. We have to do a better job of recognizing that a team is going on a run, and slowing down and being more patient."
That's some astute unprompted analysis from a freshman. He's the player the Tar Heels are most likely to ask to control those moments, and he understands what to do. Now, though, comes one of the tougher parts of being a freshman: understanding it, and then going out and actually doing it against an opponent that might be bigger and stronger.
Some teams are just born knowing how to win on the road. The 2005-06 freshmen--who eventually turned into the 2009 national champions--went 6-2 on the road in the conference, which might be one of the most incredible statistics from their incredible first season in Chapel Hill. However, in Roy Williams's first season back in Chapel Hill, a group that would one day become the 2005 national champions went just 2-6 in ACC road games. The hope is that this loss, the one that will be instantly identifiable as, "Oh yeah, that's the one when Miami threw the ball off the backboard and dunked it," will be something Paige and J.P. Tokoto and their classmates will remember as a learning experience.
It's also true that opponents aren't likely to give you multiple windows in the ACC, and you have to take advantage of any that you get. Miami went through a dismal first-half stretch that saw them turn the ball over on five straight possessions. It was the textbook example of a small segment of a game that allows a mature team to seize momentum, deflate the crowd, and control the rest of the half, if not the game.
Instead, the Tar Heels didn't cut a single point off the Hurricane lead during that stretch, missing all four of their field goal attempts and turning the ball over twice. The lapse from Miami was only two minutes and 54 seconds long. They'd shown a vulnerability, Carolina hadn't taken advantage and now the moment was passed. A new Hurricane run began almost immediately.
Miami is a good team and may have played at the absolute apex of their abilities on Saturday. They scored inside, they scored outside and they ran the floor confidently and precisely. They played so well that they answered a question that has lingered in Chapel Hill for 15 years.
It would be fine if it takes another 15 to see it again.