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Reflections from Dean Smith's last team

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina started off Dean Smith's final season as head coach making a dubious kind of history.

During the 1996-97 season, the Tar Heels began ACC play 0-3 for the first time ever. And the young squad that featured sophomores Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison were headed to a fourth loss, trailing NC State by nine points with 2:34 left in the game.

That's when Dean Smith worked his comeback magic in a way that not only saved the game, but turned around the season. Smith called timeout and from junior forward Makhtar Ndiaye's recollection, he didn't diagram any plays. Smith spent the entire huddle reaffirming players whose collective body language suggested they were ready to accept defeat.

"He said, 'It seems like I want this more than you guys want it,'" Ndiaye said. "We kind of looked at his face and he was very determined. We were like, shoot, we have to do something."

Carolina scored the remaining 12 points in the game -- after scoring just two field goals during the first 18 minutes of the second half -- and the rally served as a springboard.

"The attention that he has and the way he looks into your eyes you have no choice but to believe," Jamison said. "When coach Smith says something was going to happen, it happened."

WIN No. 877

There was one thing that Smith absolutely didn't want to happen. When he became, at the time, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history, Smith wanted to sneak off to the locker room. The players all but forced him to stay out on the court.

"He was saying thank you, thank you, OK that's enough, let's get ready for next game," Carter said. "We were like forget that game, we were just part of history. It was like it meant more to us than him."

Ndiaye said Smith was more fun than the public knew, that's how he convinced the venerable coach to "raise the roof," after the game, which was a popular dance at the time.

"He had a lot of fun with our group, we got him a little bit out of his shell," Ndiaye said. "Those things are precious now when you look back."

THE LAST GAME

When Carolina lost to eventual national champion Arizona 66-58 in the Final Four, none of the players had any indication that it would be Smith's last game on the sideline. Quite the opposite, they left the floor in Indianapolis believing they would be back the next season to get Smith his third title.

"Yes we lost our opportunity to play for the national championship, but we felt like -- I know I did personally -- we let coach Smith down," Carter said. "Just for what he brought to the table for us and how he prepared us and we let him down and it was tough. To sit there and watch them celebrate it was just tough to swallow. And I sat there in disbelief."

But he sat there knowing the core of the team would be back and, with Smith's guidance, they could make it back to the Final Four. It's what fueled the Heels that summer and why Smith's next announcement would come as such a shock.

CALLING IT QUITS

The Tar Heels had just completed their traditional mile run outside on the track and Smith summoned them to the office in what they thought would be a routine discussion about the season. Smith singled out senior captains Shammond Williams and Ndiaye in the meeting room first and handed them both a note.

Ndiaye said the note thanked them for being great players and it urged them to lead the team and help assistant coach Bill Guthridge in his transition. To head coach.

"It was something that was difficult for him because he was always a man of his word and he didn't want to disappoint anyone," Williams said.

Carter said the players could sense something was wrong when assistant coaches Dave Hanners, Phil Ford and Guthridge all had solemn looks on their faces and Smith was "disheveled" and fumbled with the words as he started to speak.

"You could just tell by the look in his face not that he felt like he was letting us down, but he was just tired like he couldn't give any more," Jamison said. "Coach Smith was superman to us, to hear him say he couldn't do it anymore was devastating. It was like the last thing you expected to happen."