OGDEN — They're officially known as the Wolfpack from North Carolina State.
In 1983, their string of stirring NCAA Tournament victories earned them a well-deserved nickname, the "Cardiac 'Pack."
To many of us, though, the '83 Wolfpack will always be fondly remembered as "The Team of Destiny."
Indeed, they were a dynamic, underdog men's basketball team that captured the hearts of America in an improbable run to the NCAA championship.
And along the way, they earned the right to advance to the Final Four by winning the West Regional title at Weber State University's Dee Events Center — the last time the state of Utah hosted an NCAA regional final.
Until this week.
Sure, plenty of NCAA first- and second-round games have been played in the Beehive State since then over the last three or four decades. Heck, Utah even hosted a most memorable Final Four, featuring Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, in 1979.
But when Syracuse, Butler, Kansas State and Xavier converge on EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday, it will mark the first time in 27 years that the NCAA's regional semifinals have been played here.
And with four bona fide Cinderella teams — Northern Iowa, Saint Mary's, Washington and Cornell, who were seeded just ninth through 12th, respectively — reaching this year's Sweet 16, this seemed like a good time to look back on one of the biggest and best Cinderella ballclubs of all time, N.C. State's 1983 "Team of Destiny."
The '83 West Regional semifinals in Ogden featured one big dog — Virginia, led by three-time College Player of the Year Ralph Sampson — and three yappy little underdogs — Boston College, the University of Utah and N.C. State — who had each surprised some folks to get there.
The Utes squared off with the Wolfpack in one of Thursday's semifinals that year, with Sampson's favored Cavaliers facing BC in the other semifinal showdown.
Utah had written a Cinderella story of its own that season, reaching the NCAA Tournament with a modest 16-13 record by virtue of winning a share of the Western Athletic Conference crown.
Coached by Jerry Pimm, in what would be his final season at the school, the Utes featured the likes of Pace Mannion, Manny Hendrix, Peter Williams, Angelo Robinson and Chris Winans. They had knocked off seventh-seeded Illinois and second-seeded UCLA in the opening two rounds at Boise to reach the Sweet 16.
"In all honesty, we were probably lucky to get as far as we got that year," Mannion said of his senior season with the Utes. "We were all very happy just to get to the tournament, and then to win a couple of games made it even sweeter. We had moved Manny Hendrix into the starting lineup and, at that point in the season, we were playing really good basketball. But I don't think anybody came into a game too worried about playing us — until we beat Illinois and UCLA.
"Our team, record-wise, was the worst team in the NCAA and the NIT field that year, and I think everybody overlooked us. I remember sitting in my hotel room before we played UCLA, and spring break was coming up the next week, and I asked my wife, 'Where we gonna go on spring break?'
"On paper, UCLA should've beaten us by 20, but we beat them by five or six (67-61) and Jerry Pimm did a phenomenal job in out-coaching UCLA's coach, Larry Farmer," Mannion recalled. "We had a great game plan, made some big free throws down the stretch, and we were excited that we got a chance to play the next round in our own backyard up in Ogden."
Mannion admitted he was somewhat disappointed when N.C. State beat UNLV in their own second-round matchup, because Utah had already faced UNLV earlier that season and Mannion felt like the Utes matched up better with the Rebels than they did with the Wolfpack.
He was right. The Utes lost, 75-56, and their Cinderella run through the tourney came to an end while the Wolfpack's own run continued.
"I didn't see N.C. State as a real powerhouse," Mannion said. "We played 'em close in the first half, but then Thurl (Bailey) had a great second half and they beat us by almost 20. They were so much bigger than we were, and they were a better team. I think, mentally, we were pretty much done by then, but it was a great run.
"Even though we lost, I have great memories of that year. It was a Cinderella year for us."
Meanwhile, the other Cinderella — the one with simply the word "State" on the front of its jerseys — wasn't done dancing yet.
With 10 regular-season losses, North Carolina State sat delicately on the NCAA bubble before earning its postseason berth by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with a win over Virginia in the ACC finals.
The sixth-seeded Wolfpack then battled their way into the West Regional semifinals with a couple of wild wins. They trailed Pepperdine by six points with just 24 seconds remaining in overtime before staging a miraculous rally to win, 69-67, in double-overtime. Then they upset No. 3 seed UNLV, 71-70, on a last-second tip-in by Thurl Bailey to reach the Sweet 16.
"It was snowing when we arrived in Utah," said Bailey, the Wolfpack's leading scorer and rebounder, "and it was the first time I'd been in this part of the country. I was taken back by the beauty of it, and by all the excitement of being in the tournament and getting an opportunity to travel a little bit and see new places.
"We were just caught up in all the excitement that we'd won the ACC tournament and had beaten Pepperdine and UNLV. We were eating it up and wanted it to continue for as long as we could. We had one of the greatest coaches and motivators who ever lived, Jim Valvano, and we felt like we had prepared for what ended up happening.
"Coach V had prepared us for it. We were a good team, but a lot of good things happened for us," Bailey said. "Destiny means a lot of things have to line up for you and then you have to do your part, too."
N.C. State had lost to Virginia twice during the regular season before beating the Cavaliers for the ACC tourney title.
Two weeks later, after Virginia turned back Boston College in a 95-92 battle, the Wolfpack and Cavaliers collided again, this time at the Dee Events Center with a Final Four bid up for grabs.
Bailey, point guard Sidney Lowe and shooting guard Dereck Whittenburg were the leaders of an N.C. State squad that also featured Lorenzo Charles, Cozell McQueen and Terry Gannon. Whittenburg had missed a chunk of the season with a broken foot but was back in time for postseason play.
And Valvano, who was in his third season at the school, was the colorful, wise-cracking Italian coach who made it all work.
"We really started to groove at the right time," Bailey said. "Sidney was our floor leader, Dereck was the leader who got in your face when you needed it, and I was more of the 'go out on the floor and prove it' guy. I tried to be ready every single night and demanded that from everybody else. But you can't be a good leader without people who want to listen and follow you.
"Coach V was awesome," Bailey said of his college coach, who was stricken with cancer and died tragically, at age 47, just 10 years later in 1993. "When it was time to get down to business, he was serious about the job we had to do, the job we needed to do. I believe he coined the phrase 'Survive and advance,' and he always talked about putting ourselves in a position to win."
Bailey said the Wolfpack's three previous games against Virginia prepared them well for what was to come in the West Regional final that day.
And Sampson, as great as he might've been back in the day, couldn't overcome "The Team of Destiny."
"I'm not sure they liked playing us; they were tired of seeing us," Bailey said. "Ralph was one of the greatest players in the country, but we had the experience of knowing what to do against him.
"These guys were in our conference, and we knew everything about them; we knew every single player's tendencies, strengths and weaknesses."
When Virginia's Othel Wilson missed a last-second shot, putting up an airball, the Cardiac 'Pack had pulled out another dramatic win, 63-62.
And while Sampson defiantly dunked the ball one last time after the final buzzer — the loss ended his collegiate career — and he disgustedly slammed the ball down on the floor, the N.C. State players jubilantly rolled around on it like a bunch of 10-year-olds at recess.
"At that moment, we were a bunch of 10-year-old boys," Bailey recalled fondly. "We had just accomplished a great feat together. We had survived, and we knew we were going to the real Big Dance."
That, of course, was the Final Four, to be played at The Pit in Albuquerque, where N.C. State would join Georgia, Louisville and Houston — the heralded Phi Slamma Jamma team featuring Akeem (he added the H to his name later) Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and a guy who would someday become BYU's head coach, Dave Rose.
Bailey said the Wolfpack took on its own nickname — Phi 'Pack Attacka — and faced Georgia in the national semifinals. N.C. State beat the Bulldogs, 67-60, to reach the championship game against No. 1-ranked Houston, which had outgunned second-ranked Louisville 94-81.
Most folks figured the winner of the Houston-Louisville game would go on to win the national championship. But as always, Valvano and the Wolfpack had other ideas.
Drexler got in foul trouble; Cougars' coach Guy Lewis inexplicably slowed the game down, and his team missed several clutch free throws down the stretch.
Then, with the score tied at 52 and time running out, Whittenburg launched a 35-foot shot that might've been the most beautiful airball in basketball history — Charles caught it on its way down and dunked it for a dramatic 54-52 victory in one of the tournament's most enduring moments in March Madness history, as Valvano frantically ran around the court looking for somebody to hug.
"When you watch that last play, it's as if it was meant to be," said Mannion, who was in attendance watching the championship game at The Pit that night. "If you look at their run, from Game One all the way to the finals, I think that was a team that was meant to win the championship, because there were several times it looked like they were done, but they kept finding a way to win. … That destiny ending that was supposed to happen."
And, to add a final twist of irony, a couple of months later, Bailey was taken with the seventh pick of the 1983 NBA Draft — by the Utah Jazz.
"You watch the tournament every year, and there's always those sleepers, somebody that comes in under the radar and shocks the world," Bailey said.
Yep, somebody like "The Team of Destiny."
NCAA West Regional
Salt Lake City
(5) Butler vs. (1) Syracuse, 5:07 p.m.
(6) Xavier vs. (2) Kansas State, 7:37 p.m.
The winners play Saturday
Practices free to the public
Fans are invited to watch the teams in this week's NCAA Tournament West Regionals practice Wednesday at EnergySolutions Arena. Admission is free.
Butler: Noon-12:50 p.m.
Xavier: 1-1:50 p.m.
Syracuse: 2:10-3 p.m.
Kansas State: 3:10-4 p.m.
The games (two on Thursday, one on Saturday) are sold out. However, a limited number of tickets may go on sale Wednesday afternoon if participating teams turn back any from their allotment.
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