By Adam Lucas
Some of the most fun-to-watch teams in the modern era of Carolina Basketball are returning to the Smith Center on Friday night.
In honor of their 25th anniversary, numerous members of the 1997 and 1998 Final Four teams will be back in Chapel Hill for Friday’s game against Johnson C. Smith. With multiple players still involved in the basketball world, Friday was their preferred date to coordinate schedules and get the best possible participation from across the two rosters.
The 1997 team was Dean Smith’s final Carolina club. The Tar Heels started a stunning 0-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and were minutes from 0-4 before a furious rally defeated NC State at the Smith Center. After finishing the first leg of ACC play at 3-5, the Tar Heels beat Middle Tennessee State and then won eight straight league games to close the regular season. Then, led by tournament MVP Shammond Williams, they swept the ACC Tournament, and then stormed through the NCAA Tournament on the way to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
That postseason run included one of the toughest tickets in Carolina basketball history, as Smith tied and then passed Adolph Rupp’s all-time victories record, doing it in Winston-Salem in front of an adoring crowd. The record-breaking win came with a 73-56 victory over Colorado in the NCAA Tournament second round.
Substantial firepower from that 1997 team returned for 1998, including Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Williams, Ed Cota and Ademola Okulaja. But a key piece did not—Smith retired just days before the season was to begin, handing over head coaching duties to Bill Guthridge.
The longtime assistant would go on to win National Coach of the Year honors, piloting his first team to another ACC Tournament championship (Jamison won MVP during a season when he also won National Player of the Year recognition) and a repeat appearance in the Final Four while finishing first in the final AP poll. That year’s devastating national semifinal loss to Utah remains that generation’s equivalent of the 1977 title loss to Marquette or the injuries that sent the 2012 team out before its time.
Jamison memorably kissed center court at the Alamodome before leaving college basketball for the last time, signifying the end of an era for the Tar Heels. The high-flying way the Tar Heels played throughout the late 1990’s would have been the stuff of social media legend in the current environment; instead, it’s worth perusing YouTube just to fully understand exactly how entertaining those teams could be. The above the rim play of Carter and Jamison would have been enough by itself; add the slick ball-handling and passing of Cota and the perimeter marksmanship of Williams, plus the do-everything hustle of Okulaja, and the result was must-see television every time the Tar Heels took the court.
This weekend’s gathering, fittingly taking place on Homecoming weekend, will also allow the members of the team to honor Okulaja, who passed away this spring after a battle with cancer. His brother, Adekola, will be in attendance. Fans are invited to participate in the tribute by filling out the signs available on the concourse and from ushers throughout the arena honoring anyone important to them who is battling cancer.
The 1997 and 1998 teams went a combined 62-11, made two Final Fours and won two ACC championships, beat 11 top-15 opponents and went 23-2 at the Smith Center.