North Carolina Coach Dean Smith knew that voice anywhere. It was Laker General Manager Jerry West, his West Virginia accent twanging through the car speakers as Smith drove alone to Saturday afternoon's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal against Maryland.
West was the halftime guest on the Tar Heel Radio Network's broadcast of the day's first game, Wake Forest against Virginia. Here in Greensboro to scout, West found himself giving over-the-air thumbnail sketches of the ACC's best players.
"Tim Duncan?" said the host, Mick Mixon.
"I think he's the best player in the country," said West of the Wake Forest sophomore center.
Smith was tempted to have his stereo checked, or better yet, his hearing.
Best player in the country? Had West forgotten about Tar Heel sophomore center Rasheed Wallace? And hadn't West seen last week's issue of Sports Illustrated, the one in which North Carolina sophomore swingman Jerry Stackhouse was named national player of the year?
"I was surprised," Smith said.
Hours later, after the fourth-ranked Tar Heels defeated 10th-ranked Maryland in overtime, 97-92, Smith reminded the media of West's comments. Then he did a quick read of the North Carolina box score.
Wallace: a career-high 33 points, six rebounds, five blocks and two assists in 43 minutes.
Stackhouse: 19 points, a career-high 14 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 38 minutes.
Together, they helped put the Tar Heels in their fifth consecutive ACC championship game, their 23rd overall, and more important, placed them in perfect position for a No. 1 seeding when the men's selection committee announces its NCAA tournament brackets this afternoon. Beat Wake Forest, which slipped past Virginia, 77-68, and the No. 1 spot in the East Regional is guaranteed. Lose and the Tar Heels might have to sweat out the committee's decision.
As it was, North Carolina (24-4) perspired plenty during Saturday's victory over Maryland (24-7). The Tar Heels led by as many as 13 points in the first half, were up by nine with eight minutes left in regulation and appeared in control of the game. Wallace was getting wrist bruises from all the two- handed dunks. Stackhouse was busy putting the glove on Maryland's Keith Booth (three of 12 from the field, seven points) and occasionally leaving Earth's gravity to pull down wayward shots.
But that was before the Terrapins, playing their fourth consecutive game without Coach Gary Williams, made their best run of the day. Williams, who is recovering from pneumonia and is expected to return in time for Monday's practice, would have been proud. Billy Hahn was.
"Our guys got guts," said the Terrapins' acting coach, his voice hoarse and his white shirt soaked in sweat.
Maryland crept ahead with 2:34 remaining in regulation and had an 86-83 lead with 56 seconds left when Stackhouse tied the score on an open three-point basket. Then, Wallace blocked Joe Smith's shot with 35.9 seconds left. Carolina got the ball, but point guard Jeff McInnis missed a potential game-winning shot moments before the buzzer.
In overtime, the Tar Heels had a need for Rasheed. He scored six of Carolina's 11 overtime points, sealing the victory with two free throws with three seconds left.
"I wanted to play the way I know how to play," said Wallace, who had been in single digit scoring two of his previous three games.
Not to worry . . . he did. Everyone who squeezed into the sold-out Greensboro Coliseum saw it.
Everybody but West. He left before the end of regulation.
Before departing the premises, though, West, as well as Milwaukee Buck General Manager and Coach Mike Dunleavy, paid close attention to Wake Forest's victory over Virginia. Duncan had 20 points and 14 rebounds, and point guard Randolph Childress had 30 points but needed 21 shots and eight free throws to do it.
The seventh-ranked Demon Deacons (23-5) move into their first ACC tournament final since 1978. They haven't won since 1962. And never have they come this close to a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament.
Now, the they have a chance.