by Rick Brewer, GoHeels.com
North Carolina heads back to the Carrier Dome this weekend, the site of several memorable wins and one of the school's most frustrating losses.
The Tar Heels have an 8-1 record in the building. Strangely, only one of those nine games was against Syracuse. Carolina has won four of seven games against the Orange, but only the December, 1983 game was played on either team's home court.
That game was billed as showcase for two of the nation's top freshman guards—Syracuse's Dwayne "Pearl" Washington and the Tar Heels' Kenny Smith.
Washington was generally regarded as the top player in New York City as a senior and the number one point guard prospect in the nation. Smith was ranked right behind him during that same year at Archbishop Malloy in Queens.
Their freshman matchup was never close. A near-record crowd of 32, 235 at the Carrier Dome saw top-ranked Carolina bolt to a 14-point halftime lead and an 87-64 win.
The game wasn't a one-on-one showdown. Smith played on a team featuring four returning starters, including a trio of top three NBA draft choices.
Michael Jordan scored 19 points, Sam Perkins finished with 16 and Brad Daugherty had 12 points and 10 rebounds. However, Smith was sensational. He hit all five of his field goal attempts and handed out nine of his team's 28 assists. With either Smith or Jordan defending him, Washington made three of 11 shots, scored eight points and had five turnovers.
Just eight months earlier Carolina had suffered a major disappointment in that same building. The Tar Heels were beaten by Georgia, 82-77, the finals of the East Regional. The Bulldogs had tied for fourth in the SEC, but won the SEC Tournament to earn to earn the first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
Carolina had beaten Ohio State in the semifinals before playing Georgia. The Bulldogs broke open the game midway in the second half. It wasn't as close as the 82-77 score. Georgia had a 15-point lead with 1:38 to play.
The smaller Bulldogs out-rebounded the Tar Heels, 37-32. That included 15 on the offensive boards. They hurt Carolina with their points in transition and surprised the Tar Heels with their outside shooting.
All five Carolina starters scored in double figures led by Jordan with 26. The Tar Heels committed just 10 turnovers. Still they lost, an indication of just how well Georgia played.
That defeat ended the hope of a return match against N.C. State in the NCAA semifinals. The Wolfpack, of course, rolled past Georgia and Houston to win the national championship. But, no one would have known better how to play Jim Valvano's team than Dean Smith. The loss in the Carrier Dome may well have cost the Tar Heels the NCAA title.
Smith's final victory as Carolina's head coach also came in the Carrier Dome. The Tar Heels had advanced to the 1997 East Regional in Syracuse after wins over Fairfield and Colorado. With the victory over the Buffaloes Smith broke Adolph Rupp's record for coaching victories.
Carolina needed late free throws from Antawn Jamison, Ed Cota and Vince Carter to edge California in the East semifinals. Two days later the Tar Heels routed Louisville, 97-74.
The victory came in the same fashion as most of Smith's previous ones. His team shared the ball, took good shots and was outstanding on defense. Louisville was limited to 37.7 percent shooting and had 16 turnovers. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, shot 55.9 percent with 22 assists on 33 field goals. Six players scored in double figures, led by Shammond Williams with 22 and Carter with 18.
Carolina then lost to Arizona in the national semifinals. Smith decided to retire the following fall, leaving the win over Louisville in the Carrier Dome as the last of his career.
Six years earlier the Tar Heels had opened NCAA Tournament play in Syracuse with first and second-round wins over Northeastern and Villanova.
What proved to be Carolina's biggest wins at the Carrier Dome came in the 2005 East Regional. The Tar Heels outlasted Villanova and Wisconsin to advance to the Final Four. Carolina whipped Michigan State and then toppled Illinois for the NCAA championship.
The game with the Illini wasn't decided until the final minutes. However, the two games at the Carrier Dome were just as tough.
Villanova used a four-guard lineup to build a double-digit lead in the first half of the East semifinals. Sean May led a late surge that cut the Wildcat advantage to 33-29 at halftime.
Rashad McCants hit a three-pointer with 7:20 left in the game to give the Tar Heels the lead for good. They stretched that to 10 points with just 3:45 remaining. But, Villanova pulled to within 64-62 with 40 seconds to play. The Wildcats had a chance to win the game in the final moments, but a turnover with nine seconds on the clock allowed Carolina to escape with a 67-66 victory.
Two days later the Tar Heels defeated Wisconsin, 88-82, as May scored 29 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. The game was tied 44-44 at halftime. Carolina seemed to take control by scoring 14 straight points early in the second half. But, Wisconsin rallied down the stretch. In the final three minutes McCants hit a big three-pointer and had a crucial blocked shot as the Tar Heels hung on for the victory.
Now Carolina heads back to the Carrier Dome again. This will mark the first meeting between the Tar Heels and Syracuse in an ACC game. This is another major test for Roy Williams' team, which has struggled, in the past week.
Whatever happens, it will be tough to match Carolina's previous games in the building.