Pop culture maven and noted hoops fan Chuck Klosterman has reasoned that his love of collegiate athletics stems from watching an average player have a great game and knowing that fans are bearing witness to the greatest day in that athlete’s entire life.
A variation on that thesis is the thrill of watching an overwhelmed 18-year-old kid start to understand the college game and how to be a meaningful contributor. Witness North Carolina State point guard Justin Gainey at the 1997 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
N.C. State was the only big-time school to offer Gainey a scholarship. The coach who recruited him, Les Robinson, had resigned by the time Gainey stepped on campus. So the freshman had to adjust to a new coach in Herb Sendek and also to opponents who were bigger, stronger and faster than the ones he faced as a prep standout at Greensboro Day School.
The Wolfpack got off to a rocky start in the 1996-’97 season, losing their first eight ACC games. The team rebounded to finish the second half of the conference season 4-4, with Gainey gradually becoming the starting point guard. The only way N.C. State could have made the NCAA tournament was by winning four games in four days in Greensboro, starting with Georgia Tech in the ACC play-in bracket.
The teams provided ample evidence as to why they were the ACC tournament’s lowest seedings in the first half, combining for 16 turnovers and only 17 field goals. Georgia Tech held a 20-19 lead at halftime despite an almost nine-minute scoring drought.
Gainey directed N.C. State’s deliberate attack in the second half with precision. His final numbers (4 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 turnovers) don’t pop off the stat sheet, but Gainey was in control of the 60-46 victory. He dictated the pace and spread his teammates out, giving high-scoring teammates Jeremy Hyatt and C.C. Harrison room to operate. Gainey played all 40 minutes, showing how much Sendek’s confidence had grown in the freshman.
The Wolfpack needed a top-shelf game from Gainey against their next opponent: top-seeded, seventh-ranked and ACC regular-season champion Duke. The Blue Devils’ plan of attack was evident early: Disrupt N.C. State’s offensive flow by picking up Gainey full court on defense with perpetual pest Steve Wojciechowski.
Gainey handled the pressure with aplomb, but cold shooting left N.C. State in an early 21-5 deficit. The Wolfpack battled back to within 31-25 at the break, but they were soon behind by 14 points early in the second half. Gainey never lost his composure, coolly sparking an 11-0 run that got N.C. State back in the game. He hit a crucial jumper that gave the Wolfpack a 52-48 lead, and they held on for a 66-60 victory. Once again, Gainey didn’t come out of the game, and finished with a beautiful point-guard line of 9 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and, most important, only one turnover against Wojciechowski’s hawking defense.
Maryland had waves of good perimeter defenders to throw at Gainey in the semifinals: Terrell Stokes, Laron Profit and Sarunas Jasikevicius. Gainey did commit four turnovers against the full-court pressure, but was steady in getting the ball to the red-hot Harrison, who scored 24 points. Gainey pulled down a rebound and hit two free throws with 4.5 seconds left to finish off the 65-58 upset of the 22nd-ranked Terrapins.
The Wolfpack had become the lowest seeding to make the ACC championship game. They had won six straight games, including three before the tournament, and Gainey had committed only 11 turnovers in his previous 10 games as a starter. He had also played every second in the three tournament games.
Gainey and the Wolfpack would need every ounce of energy against North Carolina in the title game. The Tar Heels were the hottest team in the nation, winners of 11 straight games. UNC coach Dean Smith played on Gainey’s reluctance to shoot from the outside, starting the game with Tar Heels power forward Antawn Jamison guarding Gainey and markedly sagging off. Then a few minutes later, Smith switched to one of the more improbable man-to-man matchups a fan would ever see: 7-foot, 2-inch center Serge Zwikker on Gainey, who was listed at 6-0 but was probably around 5-10. The stratagem paid off, with Gainey going scoreless in the first half.
The Tar Heels could never pull away from the Wolfpack. Gainey scored 11 points in the second half, hitting a three-pointer that got N.C. State to within 47-44. But fatigue finally set in for the underdog, and the Wolfpack shot only 10 for 32 on three-pointers as UNC held on to win 64-54. Gainey was solid in 40 minutes again: 11 points, 3 assists, 3 steals and no turnovers.
Yes, Gainey’s per-game averages don’t boggle the mind. But an undersized freshman point guard played every second of four games in four days. He played 160 minutes in leading the most improbable run in the history of the most-storied conference tournament in the nation. He was the 14th freshman to make the all-ACC tournament team.
Gainey built on the confidence, playing 3,835 minutes in 128 games with the Wolfpack. That’s one of the perks of watching college basketball, seeing a player once deemed unworthy of the ACC defy the expectations.