Antawn Jamison was never questionable.
That's what the legendary Tar Heel says today. But in 1998, at one of the best ACC Tournaments in the modern era, that's not what everyone in Chapel Hill believed.
Nine teams made the field in Greensboro for the ACC's signature event. But the other seven were largely in the way of what virtually everyone wanted to see: a third and deciding matchup between fourth-ranked Carolina and top-ranked Duke.
The Blue Devils were more highly ranked. But I don't remember anyone--anyone--who seriously believed Duke was better than the Tar Heels. Carolina had demolished Duke in the first meeting of the season at the Smith Center, a 97-73 whipping that included Vince Carter's legendary almost-dunk on an off-the-backboard pass from Ed Cota (that dunk was the basis of this excellent recent story).
Carter, Jamison, Cota, Ademola Okulaja and the Tar Heels were all set to roll into the postseason as the nation's top team until they dropped the regular season finale in heartbreaking fashion at Cameron Indoor Stadium. After building a 17-point second-half lead, Carolina suddenly sputtered, and Elton Brand came back from a foot injury to lead Duke to a 73-68 lead on Steve Wojciechowski's senior day.
It wasn't pretty, and it vaulted the Blue Devils back into the nation's top spot as the conference headed to Greensboro for its signature event.
Carolina's quarterfinal win over NC State was largely a formality, as the Tar Heels stumbled to a 22-19 halftime lead before blitzing the Wolfpack in the second half on the way to a 73-46 win. Jamison scored 25 points and grabbed 7 rebounds to lead the Tar Heels.
That set up a semifinal matchup against 20th ranked Maryland, a solid club that included Laron Profit, Rodney Elliott, Obinna Ekezie and Terrell Stokes. While not exactly household names today, they were an athletic, capable club that was well-coached by Gary Williams, and had beaten Carolina, 89-83, in January.
The '98 Tar Heel team is largely remembered for Carter and Jamison's amazing feats of athleticism. But the semifinals-on one of the best semifinal days ever-belonged to Shammond Williams, who pumped in 25 points.
The Terps were on the verge of a weekend-spoiling upset. They had a nine-point second-half lead and still led by two with under a minute to play. But Williams sank two free throws with four seconds left to send the game into overtime. In the extra session, the senior sharpshooter scored 10 of Carolina's 17 points to subdue Maryland and set up the championship game against Duke, which had survived Clemson on a buzzer-beater by William Avery.
The third meeting of the season between Carolina and Duke would decide everything: rivalry supremacy, the ACC Tournament title, and almost certainly the top seed in the NCAA Tournament's East region, which came complete with a regional championship round in Greensboro.
But the eagerly anticipated rematch had a problem: Jamison had strained his groin against the Terps, and was officially listed as "questionable" for the title game. Fans arriving at the arena on Sunday afternoon had no idea if he would even be in uniform. In fact, the junior had gone to sleep Saturday night not entirely sure himself. He'd iced the injury and taken electric stimulation for what trainer Marc "Skate" Davis termed muscle soreness.
After the Maryland game, Jamison said, "It was still hard to walk." Then, the next morning when he woke up, "I was thinking, 'Please be all right, please be all right."
He wasn't the only one. He'd enjoyed a National Player of the Year-quality season (his junior campaign would eventually earn his way into the retired-jersey row in the Smith Center rafters), and now the Tar Heels were faced with playing the most important game of the season without him.
Only...it wasn't really that close, at least according to Jamison. He was recently reminded that he was listed as questionable for the ACC title game.
"I was?" he said. "There is no way I wasn't playing in that game. No way."
Jamison started slowly, and his first shot was blocked by Brand. But during a first-half timeout, the normally soft-spoken star told his teammates, "Get me the ball."
They did, and he obliged with 22 points and 18 rebounds. But even with his stellar effort, the game was still tied at 57 with 11:38 remaining. That's when Carolina began a 13-0 run that featured points from Cota, Williams, Carter and Jamison-the same quartet that made the 1998 Tar Heels one of the most fun teams to watch in school history. Duke never got close again, and Carolina cruised to its second straight ACC tournament title, 83-68.
"We're the better team overall," an apparently confused Brand said afterwards.
But they weren't, and everyone knew it. Duke was tough, but Carolina was tough and very talented. Williams, the 1997 ACC Tournament MVP, finished with 56 points over three games in Greensboro and made a bid to repeat the honor. But Jamison's title game performance was classic, and he earned the MVP award. The championship game marked the end of a weekend of revenge; in beating State, Maryland and Duke, the Tar Heels topped the only three teams that had beaten them during the regular season.
Tar Heel head coach Bill Guthridge was asked about his allegedly injured star in the postgame press conference. With his wry sense of humor, Guthridge replied,
"We may want to find out what that injury is and give it to everyone."
Scott Fowler and the Charlotte Observer archives assisted with this story.