20 YEARS LATER

Mar. 29, 2014 @ 07:53 PM

Before she became one of North Carolina’s most famous athletes, Marion Jones was a decoy.

With seven-tenths of a second left in the 1994 NCAA women’s basketball championship game, the then-Tar Heel freshman was supposed to bring her defender out to the top of the key and open up the paint, possibly for a lob pass to 6-5 center Sylvia Crawley.

Jones did take one step out toward the 3-point line, but then she just stood there. Like everyone else, her attention was fixed on what was about to become one of the most famous shots in college basketball history.

“It’s very surreal — like an out-of-body experience,” Jones said. “I’m watching it like everyone else.”

Stephanie Lawrence inbounded the ball to Charlotte Smith on the right wing, and Smith’s 3-pointer at the buzzer gave UNC a 60-59 win over Louisiana Tech.

While UNC is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its only national championship, the current squad is eager to add another. The Tar Heels will face South Carolina in a regional semifinal today at Stanford University (7 p.m., ESPN2).

The 1994 and 2014 teams had dinner together last month, giving the champions a chance to speak to the newcomers.

“We imparted words to current players and let them know how far this program has come, so that they won’t feel entitled,” Crawley said. “We never had a charter flight; we took a bus everywhere. We didn’t have the nice locker rooms and stuff like that. They should feel appreciative to be able to wear Carolina across their chest, and understand that it’s bigger than them. It’s about a legacy that started way before us even.”

Crawley was a senior when the Tar Heels won the title. As a freshman, UNC went 12-16, 2-12 in the ACC. She said that when the Tar Heels went to the ACC Tournament, they scheduled the team party for the next day because they knew they were coming right back home. Sure enough, Virginia beat UNC 90-69 in the opening game.

UNC steadily improved each season — going 9-7 in the ACC, then 11-5, and finally 14-2 (and 33-2 overall) during her final year. Crawley said some of the biggest factors were the program’s commitments to strength and conditioning and to recruiting.

The team would work on “explosive weight training” such as power cleans, squats and lifts, to the point that four members of the team could dunk.

On the recruiting trail, coaches would try to improve at every position each season. But instead of being intimidated by talented newcomers who threatened to take playing time away, the veterans took it as a challenge to work harder during the offseason.

“If you wanted to retain your spot, you had to grow and you had to get better,” said Crawley, who hosted Smith on her official visit.

More than the championship, Crawley celebrates the close connections with her teammates. They have been in each other’s weddings and serve as godmothers to each other’s children. When Smith was unable to attend the reunion last month because of the death of her grandmother, her former teammates made a surprise visit to the funeral.

“That’s what being at Carolina is,” Crawley said. “It’s more than just the four years that you play here. It’s about being a part of a greater family.”

The current group is now a part of that extended family, and the 1994 team is eager to see if the 2014 team can bring another title to Chapel Hill.

It seems like the fourth-seeded Tar Heels are still a few years away. They are the lowest-seeded team remaining in the Stanford Regional, which includes South Carolina, No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 Penn State. Beyond that, undefeated teams Connecticut and Notre Dame seem to be on an inevitable path to an epic final.

Still, Jones says she remembers one thing more than anything else about the 1993-94 title season.

“The fact that nobody expected us to do what we did,” Jones said. “We were the only ones that believed that we could.”