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For V and Dean: This week’s for you

There are a couple of coaches up in basketball heaven – namely Dean E. Smith and Jim Valvano – that ought to be smiling down on their former teams this past Saturday.

For those of you who may not be reading this until Saturday night – or later – it may all be moot, but the lead-up to today’s Round of 32 games has a distinct flavor both of those late and highly revered coaches would appreciate.

Carolina made a noble run to the ACC Tournament championship game last weekend. Somehow, as I watched player after player touch the black patch on their uniforms with the initials “DES”, I was getting the feeling that maybe if the Heels pulled off the impossible – four wins in four days – then there might just be something ‘divine’ in the whole weekend. However in the end it wasn’t to be thanks to some outstanding play from those Fighting Irish.

That brings me to this weekend where Carolina is searching for something that once seemed an annual rite of passage for the guys wearing sky blue: a trip to the Sweet 16.

Their last trip to the Elite Eight came back in 2012, and maybe if Kendall Marshall hadn’t suffered a wrist injury in the ACC Tournament, they might’ve been in the Final Four.

Historically, a two-year run without a Sweet 16 trip has been rare for UNC. Heck, I remember when Smith never graduated a class that had not been to a Final Four.

Not counting the Matt Doherty-era and a horrid stretch at the end of the 70’s, this is the longest stretch in which a UNC team missed advancing to the round of 16 in consecutive years.

“Young” as I like to think of myself, even I have to admit it was quite a while ago.

So, not counting a Wilmington player, Stillman White, who was a fill-in – but admirable one – back in 2012, this is a Tar Heel team with essentially no Sweet 16 experience.

Carolina’s top player is junior Marcus Paige, who all but cried when Iowa State knocked the Heels out of last year’s NCAA’s. Paige said earlier the desire to advance past the sub-regional is a great motivator.

Kind of like another Tar Heel motivator who believed in numbers as much as he believed in subtlety.

Meanwhile, the team that for two straight years had to get out of the mid-week play-in bracket finally got over the hump.

NC State trailed LSU Thursday night by a dozen points with almost ten and a half minutes left in the game, but somehow the Tigers forgot how to play basketball down the stretch, missing their last dozen shots and ‘bricking’ six straight free throws. When watching that meltdown I thought back to Valvano’s ’83 team that beat so many teams – including Ralph Sampson’s UVA team twice and then Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma in the championship game – all with their fouling-slash-free throw strategy.

Beejay Anya’s tip-in got State within a point of the Bayou Bengals and his left-handed hook just before the buzzer lifted the Pack to their win.

That was kind of like another final play where a last-second off-balance shot by a sure-handed shooter was launched and an unlikely hero rebounded in the miss, as improbable as that scenario would seem to be.

Add everything up for the Blue and for the Red that’s happened so far this week and, okay, coaches, you’ve made me believe in miracles from heaven.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.