COLLEGE BASKETBALL: 1994-95 PREVIEW : In the Shadow of Dean Smith : North Carolina's Women's Team Gets Attention After Last Shot in NCAA Final

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She looks much taller in person.

Perhaps that's because on national television, moments before she hit the buzzer-beating three-pointer in last season's NCAA women's basketball championship game, Charlotte Smith seemed swallowed up by the enormity of it all.

The shot, which gave North Carolina a 60-59 victory over Louisiana Tech, not only announced the presence of a new champion in this basketball-mad region of the country, but also captured the attention of many fans, bringing the sport into the limelight like never before.

With all this hovering in the air of the Richmond (Va.) Coliseum, Smith looked tiny as she aimed the ball at the basket.

A breath of time remained on the clock and North Carolina trailed by two points.

Across the nation, people held pretzels in mid-bite or stopped in the middle of their living rooms or set down their coffee cups and watched their televisions.

In the stands, Smith's father, normally a mild-mannered pastor, stood on his chair and cheered then knelt on the floor, telling those around him that the Spirit had spoken to him and he knew what was about to happen.

On the court, time stood still.

"It was like I was unconscious," Smith said, and her eyes lit up.

Even after all the interview requests from the media and all the congratulatory messages from fans (Michael Jordan reportedly said, "Nice shot"), even after being asked how it feels to have changed the face of the sport and after meeting the President of the United States, Smith seems to treat the experience like a dream.

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Smith is a trooper.

A trooper because when a reporter recently asked to be shown around campus, she swung her bag gamely over her shoulder, smiled and said, "Let's go!"

First stop, Carmichael Auditorium, the cozy, 10,000-seat home of the Tar Heel women and about a mile away from the overwhelming, 21,572-seat Dean E. Smith Center, where the men's team has played since 1986.

"Notice the progression," Smith said, pointing to the banners in Carmichael.

In sequence, they hang: 1992 NCAA tournament (where the Tar Heels lost in the first round), 1993 NCAA Final 16, 1994 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament champions and 1994 NCAA champions.

What's left to accomplish?

"Winning the ACC regular season," Smith said. North Carolina finished 33-2 overall, 14-2 in ACC and in second place behind Virginia (27-5, 15-1) last season.

Without Tonya Sampson, a dominating player who was the team's leading scorer the last four seasons before she finished her eligibility, the Tar Heels are not expected to repeat as national champions.

Smith is shooting for it anyway.

Smith, a senior forward, is a fierce competitor who has led the team in rebounds the last three seasons, including a game-record 23 in the NCAA final.

She has been competitive since the days when her uncle, David Thompson (yes, the David Thompson of N.C. State and NBA fame), used to visit her home in Shelby, N.C., for holidays and set all the cousins, brothers and sisters against each other in any game he could think of--who could do the most push-ups, the most sit-ups, or run the fastest. And, of course, there was always basketball.

"We didn't get to see him that much, but when we did, it was fun being around him," Smith said. "I think he brought out the competitiveness in me."

Her three brothers also brought out the tomboy in her. Together, they used to hunt and build clubhouses in the woods near Shelby. Summers were spent swimming in a creek behind her grandmother's house.

On the salary her father, Ulysses, earned as a pastor at New Life Christian Center, just outside Shelby, expensive clothes or toys never entered the picture.

"We preferred to be with nature and have adventures . . . just fun stuff," Smith said.

At Shelby High, Smith was the only girl enrolled in the weights class, she would take on any boy in the gym in a one-on-one basketball game at lunchtime, and she always lined up for the dunk contests. She was selected the most valuable player of the girls' basketball team four years and was twice selected all-state, even though Shelby never made it to the state championship.

The only reason North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell even heard about Smith was because Hatchell's brother lives in Shelby and saw Smith play. Hatchell, whose team was in the conference cellar at the time, figured she had nothing to lose and made the two-hour drive to see Smith.

"She jumped center and she just kept on going, " Hatchell said. "Her team was not really that good, but as I watched her rebound and I watched her do other things on the court, I thought, man, I would love to get my hands on this kid because she has a world of potential."

As it turns out, it was not that difficult to get her. Few other college coaches had even heard of Smith, and none had offered her a scholarship. Smith signed a letter of intent for North Carolina during her junior year at Shelby.

"I don't have any regrets in coming here," said Smith, who is reserved and polite in the presence of strangers.

"Charlotte doesn't talk a lot, she leads by example," Hatchell said.

That's why, when Hatchell called timeout with the championship game on the line, no one questioned her decision to go to Smith for a three-pointer, even though Smith had made just eight of 31 three-point attempts all season.

"When I see (Smith) getting up, I just get excited and my eyes light up," said teammate Marion Jones, a point guard from Thousand Oaks who also participated in the 1992 U.S. Olympic track and field trials. "When Charlotte gets excited, you know you can expect something good out of her."

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The clock showed 0.7 seconds remaining when Hatchell broke the team huddle after a timeout.

That's when things began moving in slow motion for Smith. She set a screen for Sampson then ran to a new spot. Turning, she watched, incredulously, as three Louisiana Tech players followed Sampson, a likely candidate to attempt a layup for the tie.

Suddenly, Smith was all alone.

She caught Stephanie Lawrence's in-bounds pass (a "perfect pass" Hatchell likes to say), took a step behind the three-point line and prayed.

Please let me hit this shot. Please, please let me make this shot .

"I saw it going through the air and it looked pretty good," Smith said. "So I just closed my eyes."

The next thing she knew, Sampson tackled her and was screaming in celebration. The rest of the Tar Heels piled on before Jackson, a reserve forward and Smith's roommate, began pulling them off to save her friend from suffocation.

When Smith finally was freed, she was covering her face with her hands.

"It looks as if I was trying to protect myself, but I just didn't want anybody to see me crying," she said.

Smith wasn't the only one crying.

One woman wrote Hatchell to say that she had been holding her baby, and when Smith's shot went in, she threw up her arms and dropped the child.

Smith's winning shot provided women's basketball with a much-needed dose of excitement.

"Coaches all over the country have told me how much that shot did for women's basketball, just the fact that people stopped and paid attention," Hatchell said. "I think what it did more than anything else is it educated a lot of people to what a great game it is."

The importance of the shot is not lost on Smith.

"A lot of people are always talking about how exciting it was and saying that it was the best game they had been to all year, including the men's games, so now they can see that women's basketball can be just as exciting as men's," Smith said.

Comparisons between the North Carolina men's and women's basketball teams are inevitable, and somewhat vexing to the Tar Heel women, who feel that they didn't get their fair share of the media spotlight last season, even after the men took an early exit from the NCAA men's tournament in the second round.

The North Carolina student store has sold about $100,000 worth of women's basketball memorabilia since March, but that is much less than the estimated $1 million that was sold after the men won their most recent of three titles in 1993.

Only a handful of people showed up to watch the women play an exhibition game recently against a local club team in Carmichael Auditorium. An announcer urged fans to buy season tickets, which are being offered for the first time.

No matter, said Smith.

"We won a national championship, so we can hold our heads up high and be proud of our team and of our accomplishments, just as much as the men's team," Smith said, "even though we don't receive as much recognition, we have something to be proud of, too."

And, after all, when you walk into the Raleigh-Durham airport, there is a sign listing all eight NCAA championships that have been brought back to the triangle, where North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina State all share a small geographic area. At the very top of the list is the North Carolina women. For a little while, at least, perhaps that is all that matters.

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