Albuquerque, N.M. — If there's ever been a better last minute basketball team than North Carolina State, would it please stand up. For the past month the Wolfpack has thrived on close shaves and hair-raising finishes. Obviously, however, it saved the best for last, upsetting top-ranked Houston 54-52 for the national championship on a rebound basket with one second left.
And we thought last year's title game was chilling, what with Michael Jordan giving North Carolina a victory on a jump shot at the 15 second mark.
Well, this one was as spine tingling.
To recap briefly, State's guards had scored on three long-range missiles to tie the score at 52 with 1:59 left.
Playing the chess game to perfection, the Wolfpack then put the pressure on Houston's suspect free-throw shooting by fouling freshman Alvin Franklin.
''We've been fouling in situations like that throughout the (NCAA) tournament ,'' said N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, ''because we feel better when we get to determine the outcome of the game.''
That opportunity presented itself when Franklin missed the first shot of a one-and-one, State's Cozell McQueen rebounded the ball, and the Wolfpack took time out to set up the last shot with 44 ticks showing on the scoreboard clock.
The way guards Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe had been shooting, one or the other would logically wind up with the ball. Whittenburg did, but was so far away from the basket that even this mad bomber seemed out of range.
''When I got the ball, I couldn't see the clock,'' Whittenburg recalled. ''I didn't want us to go into overtime without getting a shot off, so I put it up. I really didn't know where the goal was, or how far away I was.''
So from 27 feet away, Whittenburg let go with a desperation heave that had ''short'' written all over it. The fourth overtime in championship game history, and the first since 1963, appeared inevitable.
But somehow the unthinkable occured. Sophomore forward Lorenzo Charles, who had turned in a subpar performance up to that point, sneaked in behind Houston's last line of defense, ex-soccer goalie Akeem Abdul Olajuwon, the 7-foot wunderkind who was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player despite this slipup.
''I didn't know where Akeem was, just that he was behind me,'' Charles explained. ''I knew I was the closest one to the basketball. I just went up and dunked it.''
Stunned confusion followed.
''I saw Lorenzo put it through, but it's like I really didn't know what happened,'' said Whittenburg. ''I looked at the coach, he looked at me, and everybody started jumping up.''
Valvano, an excitable New Yorker in his third year at State, pranced wildly onto the floor. It was a victory dance of sorts, which made it even better than the discoing he had done finishing second or third (accounts vary) in a local dance contest four days before.
N. C. State had won the 1974 championship, but in quite different fashion. After going 27-0 the previous season when it was ineligible for tournament play because of recruiting violations, the 1973-74 powerhouse fashioned a 30-1 mark.
This season the Wolfpack had to take the fairy tale route, recovering from a mid-season slump before coming on to win its last 10 games.
Some might argue that a 20-10 team doesn't deserve a shot at the title, but as long as the NCAA has such a large field there will always be some late bloomer like N.C. State that will hit its stride when the stakes are highest.
And with three pressure-tested seniors in Whittenburg, Lowe, and 6 ft. 11 in. forward Thurl Bailey, Valvano had just the clutch players needed to win tight games.
Even so, no one could have imagined State pulling out as many victories as it did. The team won seven of its last nine games via second half comebacks, most with precious little time remaining. Being down almost became a security blanket.First came the Atlantic Coast conference tournament, in which State:
* Rallied to beat Wake Forest on a free throw with three seconds left.
* Erased a six-point deficit with two minutes left in overtime to beat North Carolina.
* Hit a pair of game-preserving free throws with six seconds left to defeat Virginia.
The pattern carried over into the NCAA tournament. The Wolfpack scored six points in the last minute of overtime to tie Pepperdine and send the game to a second extra session, when State won 69-67. Nevada-Los Vegas would fall next on Bailey's rebound basket at :04. Then another squeaker over Virgina, this one secured with a pair of free throws with 23 seconds left, was sandwiched between convincing victories over Utah and later Georgia in the semifinal.
''I think I'd get nervous if we ever had the lead,'' Valvano said. ''I don't know what we would do.''
State got a chance to find out against Houston, a monster team that had detonated its 100-megaton offense against Louisville in semifinal action.
In the first half of Monday night's championship game, the Wolfpack came out and did what it had to do - control the tempo and prevent the brothers of Phi Slama Jama from revving up their dunk-punctuated attack. As a result, State adjourned to the locker room holding a surprising 33-25 lead.
Everyone wondered how long the ACC champion could keep the lid on. Houston, after all, had won 26 straight games, most by hefty margins.
From Houston's standpoint, if there was a silver lining it was that the Cougars could hardly play worse. At least they had never shot worse than the dismal 31.3 percent they hit in the first half - not even when losing to Syracuse or Ralph Sampson-less Virginia in their only other defeat.
''I thought we were in better position being eight down to North Carolina at the half than when we trailed Louisville by five,'' said Houston coach Guy Lewis in his east Texas drawl. ''Why? It was just a feeling. We hadn't played a lick in the first half, and I felt we had to play better.''
The Cougars wasted no time getting untracked when the second half began, outscoring State 17-2 to take a 42-35 lead.
The momentum had clearly shifted, and this while starting Houston forwards Clyde Drexler and Larry Micheaux sat on the bench. When they returned fully rested with about 10 minutes left, Houston mysteriously decided to go to a semistall and sit on its lead.
It was an odd bit of strategy for a team that is downright frightening running and dunking. In the game's aftermath, the delay tactics inspired all sorts of second guessing, an unfortunate development since Lewis had managed to silence his critics up to this point.''
I've got confidence in our offense,'' he explained. ''I thought we could get some easy layups off it.''
The Cougars never regained their rhythm, which only heightened the pressure they were under to win. For like North Carolina's Dean Smith a year ago, Lewis was trying to get the monkey off his back that said his teams couldn't win it all. Three other Houston contingents had reached the Final Four, in 1967, 1968, and 1982, but until now, none had advanced to the championship game. Despite having only one senior in his starting lineup, Lewis wanted no part of ''wait til next year'' thinking, since he is nearing retirement and Drexler may pass up his senior season to turn pro.
If the Cougars were becoming tighter by the minute, State was loosening up. The Wolfpack guards, teammates and roommates since their sophomore year in high school, began finding the range on their ICBMs. Each hit back-to-back 20-footers down the stretch to set the table for the dramatic climax. Which, of course, led to the unscripted game winner.
Houston fans can console themselves, meanwhile, with the prospect of watching Olajuwon, the Nigerian center, for two more years. He really came into his own in the tournament, scoring 41 points, grabbing 40 rebounds, and blocking 15 shots in the last two games.