In the final game, played in Albuquerque, New Mexico, NC State led at halftime with a score of 33–25. Houston was hampered by foul trouble that plagued celebrity Clyde Drexler, who picked up four first half fouls. From the second half, the Cougars came out with a second wind and based control of the match, finally taking a seven-point lead.
But, things weren’t all good for Houston. Considering that the match was played Albuquerque, players had to deal with the city’s mile-high elevation. The Cougars’ star centre, Akeem Olajuwon, had problems adjusting to the surroundings and tired quickly, needing to test out of the game multiple times so he could put on an oxygen mask and then recover. Together with Olajuwon on the seat, Houston head coach Guy Lewis decided that in order to protect the lead and the health of his huge man at the exact same period, the Cougars needed to start slowing down the game.
Once again, this enabled the Wolfpack to return to their standby strategy of extending the game. Houston’s free throw shooting was very suspicious entering the match, which worked greatly in NC State’s favor since they were able to rally back and even the score at 52 in the final two minutes. On what would be the final Houston ownership, Valvano called for his players to back away and let guard Alvin Franklin bring the ball up the court. The Wolfpack defenders would let the Cougars use their slowdown strategy of passing around. Once the ball got back to Franklin he was to be fouled immediately. With 1:05 left, the freshman was fouled and sent to the line to get a one-and-one. The thought to foul Franklin sprung from the enormity of this moment; NC State thought that the comparatively inexperienced Franklin couldn’t withstand the strain of going to the line with the championship at stake and knowing fifty million viewers were tuned into watch the match. The concept was correct as Franklin failed to convert and the Wolfpack caught the rally. Valvano called timeout with 44 seconds left and drew up a play for mature defender Dereck Whittenburg during the timeout, which required the team to pass him the ball ten minutes left on the clock so he could take the last shot.
Houston needed a defensive stop so they could find another chance to close out the match. Lewis decided to move in the man-to-man shield his team was running the whole game to a half court trap defense. The Wolfpack, who were not expecting the defensive adjustment, were forced to deviate and started passing the ball around simply to maintain the Cougars from slipping it. Houston almost obtained the turnover it was looking for if Whittenburg made an errant pass to Gannon which Drexler almost came away with prior to the sophomore recovered control of the ball. The ball eventually wound up in the palms of protector Sidney Lowe, who gave it to forwards and fellow mature Thurl Bailey at the corner.
Trying to keep the ball moving, as he was double teamed as soon as he obtained the pass, Bailey appeared back toward Whittenburg, that was approximately thirty feet away from the hoop near midcourt. Bailey threw what Whittenburg would later call a”poor fundamental” overhanded pass which Houston’s Benny Anders, guarding Whittenburg about the play, was in position to steal. At this point, Whittenburg hearkened back to his high school days with Morgan Wootten at DeMatha Catholic High School, where he was taught to always catch the basketball with both hands. If Whittenburg hadn’t attempted to do this in this case, Anders may have gotten the steal and a game-winning breakaway layup. In college basketball in the time, the game clock continued to run following a made field goal, and the Wolfpack probably wouldn’t have had time even to inbound the ball. Since it was, Anders knocked the ball from Whittenburg’s hands, but Whittenburg immediately regained control.
The clock, meanwhile, had ticked down to five seconds and Whittenburg was still standing a significant distance from the goal. Once he regained command, Whittenburg turned and started a desperation shot, later claimed by Whittenburg for a pass, to try and win the game for NC State. The shot’s trajectory took it on the front of the basket at which Olajuwon was covering Wolfpack centre Lorenzo Charles. As he watched the shooter, Olajuwon said he understood the shooter was going to come up short but he also did not wish to select the ball too early due to the prospect of goaltending. Charles took advantage of the indecision by Olajuwon and proceeded up for the air balland, in 1 motion, he scored the go-ahead points using a two-handed dunk. The last second ticked off the clock before Houston could inbound the ball, and with that, the match ended, and the Wolfpack were the national champions.
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