The Houston Cougars played the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the 1983 college basketball championship. Houston was 30-2 and riding a 26-game winning streak. State lost ten games that year and only finished fourth in their conference (to be fair, one of their best players, Derek Whittenburg, missed fourteen games due to injury). The Houston team was significantly taller, faster, and more athletic than their opponents. They had a deeper bench as well; in the final game, eight Houston players played at least 10 minutes whereas State only had six players play five minutes or more. Finally, Houston had two of the best NBA players of all time, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, while State had no one who became an NBA star. Yet, NC State somehow won the game. How did this happen?
Looking at the path each team took to the final furthers the question. Houston, who received a first round bye, won three games by double digits and one contest by seven points. NC Sate, in contrast struggled greatly to make the final. In the first round, they trailed Pepperdine by six points with a minute to go in the first overtime. In the second round, they were behind by five points to UNLV with two minutes left. Finally, they beat top ranked Virginia by one in the West Regional Final. Not surprisingly, Houston was favored by 7.5 points.
Some things indeed played out as expected. Due to their advantage in height and athleticism, Houston had more rebounds (43-32) and more blocks (8-2). As befitting the best player on the court, Hakeem Olajuwon has a tremendous game with 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 7 blocks. Both teams shot the ball roughly equally well (382 FG % and a 390 FG%). Once again, how did Houston lose?
Of course, basketball includes much more than height and athleticism. There is also playing with intelligence, keeping composure, solid fundamentals, and good coaching. State outdid Houston in several categories. They had fewer turnovers (6 to 13) and were much better at the free throw line (8-11 vs. 10-19). The former usually stems from making the correct pass and the latter is often a function of fundamentals and practice. If Houston makes a few more foul shots and turns the ball over slightly fewer times, then they win the game.
Furthermore, the State coach, Jim Valvano, fully outcoached his Houston counterpart, Guy Lewis. The Houston coaches did not notice that Clyde Drexler had already picked up three fouls and he was whistled for his fourth foul in the first half. As a result, he spent a good deal of the second half on the bench and was a non factor in the game, scoring four points. Secondly, after the first half ended with State leading 33-25, Houston began the second half with a 17-2 run to go up by seven. When Olajuwon needed a breather, Lewis directed the team to slow the tempo. This move slowed the Houston momentum, and did not play to the team’s strengths as they were used a fast pace. This allowed State to recover and get back in the game.
On the other sideline, Valvano used an old strategy of his to foul the appropriate players on the other team and put them in one and one pressured situations. He even had his team waste a few fouls earlier to make sure that they arrived at a bonus situation. With the score tied and less than a minute left, his team fouled Alvin Franklin, a freshman and not a great foul shooter. Franklin missed and Sate ended up with last possession in which they scored to win the game. The next year, the NCAA experimented with rule changes to forestall Valvano’s strategy.
One more factor may have proved influential. Between the Whittenburg injury and the narrow victories in the earlier rounds, NC Sate was accustomed to adversity. Meanwhile, Houston had experienced very few close games during their long winning streak. Perhaps State won because learning to overcome hardship is invaluable when new challenges emerge.
The game is worth watching and has significance beyond basketball. Natural talent goes a long way but it can be overcome with dedication, maturity, and intelligence.