The Dean E. Smith Center was a little over a month old when the Maryland basketball team arrived in Chapel Hill, N.C., to play top-ranked North Carolina for the first time in its new building. The Tar Heel décor and the sheer expanse of what was then the largest on-campus facility in the country was a little overwhelming at first glance.
"It was state of the art, massive, everything in that facility was sky blue — the soda machines were sky blue, the towels as well," recalled Jeff Baxter, then a Maryland senior and the team's starting shooting guard. "Coach [Lefty Driesell] told us they had done that to psyche us out. We were really pumped up to play in there."
As No. 2 Maryland prepared to play at No. 9 North Carolina as part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night in the now-three decades old building, former players and coaches looked back on the Feb. 20, 1986 game.
Keith Gatlin, then a junior and the starting point guard, recalled how the Smith Center was "more like a basketball museum than an actual arena," in part because the big-money boosters sat quietly courtside and the rowdy students were several rows up. A double-digit underdog, the Terps had started to recover from an 0-6 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference when they tipped off against the 25-1 Tar Heels.
"It wasn't that we were playing really bad, there were good teams back then," Gatlin, now a successful high school coach in High Point, N.C., said Sunday. "The mood [of the team] was good, better than expected because we were 15-point underdogs and Carolina was ranked No. 1 in the country. We felt that we could compete with them."
After the Terps fell behind by nine points midway through the second half, Maryland star Len Bias orchestrated a comeback that included the 6-foot-8 forward scoring six points in a span of 29 seconds, highlighted by a steal and reverse dunk off an inbounds pass that followed his hitting a jump shot to help force overtime. In overtime, Bias made a block of a runner by North Carolina guard Kenny Smith that kept the Terps in front for good.
Maryland's 77-72 victory was the first in program history over a No. 1-ranked team, and North Carolina's first loss in a building that had already been nicknamed, "The Dean Dome."
Driesell scoffed when asked that night whether it was the biggest win of his career.
"Nah, they're all big, I won't even remember this tomorrow," Driesell said.
On Sunday, the now 83-year-old Driesell was reminded of what he had said.
"That was lie," he said with a laugh.
In reality, he had told his players, "When you come back here with your grandchildren, you can talk about the night we gave North Carolina the first loss in [its] building."
Bias puts on a show
Though Bias had put on memorable performances, like when he went shot-for-shot with North Carolina's Michael Jordan two years before at Cole Field House, when he helped the Terps win the 1984 ACC tournament with a 26-point game against Duke in the final, and when he scored 41 points at Duke as a senior, the 35-point outburst against the Tar Heels that night might have been the most important of his college career.
"The whole world saw how great a basketball player he was that night," Gatlin said of Bias, who made 13 of 24 field goal attempts and all nine of his free throws.
Said Driesell: "I remember talking to the press after the game and I said, 'Leonard Bias played like Superman tonight.'"
North Carolina coach Roy Williams, then an assistant to the legendary Dean Smith, recalled Monday how "unbelievable" Bias played.
"Every jump shot he made, he looked like he was four feet off the ground," Williams said. "I had never seen anybody with a 48-inch vertical on a jump shot. He was phenomenal."
Driesell had run an offensive set called "Special" that had center Derrick Lewis and forward Speedy Jones line up on one side of the court and Bias on the other, isolating him one-on-one against North Carolina guard Jeff Hale, who was too small, or forward Warren Martin, who was too slow, to guard Bias. Even when Smith called for a double-team, Bias would usually score.
"They double- and triple-teamed him, and he just dominated their front line," said Lewis, then a sophomore. "They couldn't stop him."
Gatlin, who would pass John Lucas as Maryland's all-time assists leader during the game, thought it was an even more powerful performance than that.
"We had God on our side," Gatlin said that night, referring to Bias.
Other Terps make plays
If the Bias steal-and-dunk was the play that will be shown before Tuesday's game, plays made by two of the All-American's teammates were equally important. Baxter forced the overtime with a long jumper; Gatlin used a trick play to secure the win in overtime.
"Everyone knew we were going to go to Lenny, he was our main scorer, we had basically run the same play all season to get him free," said Lewis, who was the game's defensive star, finishing with six of his team's nine blocked shots to go along with 10 points and 10 rebounds. "The rest of us were role players, we filled in, we got rebounds, we played defense, set screens and make open shots."
Baxter recalled going into halftime scoreless, having taken just two shots.
"I heard from coach that I was supposed to be a scorer, take a few shots, we need you to get in the game," said Baxter, who wound up scoring 10 points. "I was more aggressive offensively in the second half, which [play-by-play announcer] Mike Patrick mentioned when I hit that shot. He said, 'Jeff Baxter, who has done virtually nothing all night ...' Of course I had disdain for him for weeks after that."
Gatlin, who finished with 10 points, seven assists and three steals, made a heads-up play to seal the victory in overtime.
After Bias had blocked Smith's shot, Gatlin was fouled and hit both free throws. The Tar Heels then tried a long inbounds pass, but it sailed out of bounds and Maryland got the ball back under its own basket. With Smith turning his back to the baseline hoping to trap whoever received the pass, Gatlin threw the ball off Smith's back, jumped over the baseline, planted his feet and made a layup.
"We practiced that the day before in College Park and I asked Lefty, 'Is that legal?' and Lefty said, 'Let me call [ACC official] Lenny Wirtz to see if it's legal,'" Gatlin said. "Lenny called him back and told him that as long as I had two feet in bounds, it's legal. I kept it in the back in my mind if the opportunity presented itself. I had never seen that done before."
Neither had Williams, who still has a painful memory of that play.
"Just added insult to injury," Williams said Monday. "It really ticked me off and I've told Keith that before."
Lewis, who still holds the Maryland school record for blocks despite playing at only 6-7, recalled watching from a few feet away as Bias made the steal-and-dunk in regulation that is still the signature play of that game. There was another steal by Bias — not among the three he was credited for — that Lewis still laughs about.
"It was a rebound Jeff Baxter ran down at the end of the game that Lenny stole the ball from him," said Lewis. "After the game, Jeff asked him, 'Why did you take the rebound from me?' and Lenny said, 'You took too long to get it.'"
As the teams went through the postgame handshake line, Smith congratulated the Terps but did not have much else to to say. Nor did the Tar Heel players, several of whom Gatlin, who grew up in Rocky Mount, N.C., competed against on the summer circuit.
"We didn't have much conversation," Gatlin said. "There was no love lost between the teams. We gave the politically correct handshake and kept on going."
Lewis, who would go on to play 14 years professionally in France before returning to the United States to coach and teach at Archbishop Spalding in Anne Arundel County, said he still keeps a DVD of the 1986 game in his home and watches it frequently. He even played it for his high school teams he coached before stepping away last year.
"Many times," Lewis said Sunday. "Games against Mount Saint Joe's and teams that were expected to win. If you go in thinking that, you're going to be down 10 or 15 points before the game starts.
"We weren't necessarily top-rated players, but we had one guy that everyone knew. But basketball is a team game. When we went in to play Mount St. Joe's, we weren't going to let one guy beat you."
Lewis has memories of Driesell coming back to the bench as the seconds ticked down in overtime, with a different look on the coach's face than he had ever seen.
"He sat down, crossed his legs, and moved the little bit of hair he had on his head," Lewis recalled, "and he had a look like, 'I can't believe what we just did.'"
Something to tell the grandkids about.