Led by Len Bias’ 35 points, Maryland upset No. 1 North Carolina 77-72 in overtime at the Dean Dome on Feb. 20, 1986, a game that will re-air on ESPN, WatchESPN and the ESPN App at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday. It was the first time North Carolina had lost in that building, which had opened a month earlier.
The Tar Heels did not lose another game at the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center for two years (a 70-69 loss to Duke on Jan. 21, 1988). But that night, Bias and his teammates overcame a double-digit deficit on the road to secure one of the great upsets in college basketball history.
“You look at our schedule,” Maryland coach Lefty Driesell told reporters after the game. “We’ve played the toughest schedule in the country, and I think it’s paid off for us.”
Former Maryland standout Keith Gatlin, an assistant at High Point and a North Carolina native, sank a pair of free throws to seal the win for Maryland with seven seconds to play after Bias blocked Kenny Smith’s shot on the other end of the floor with 15 seconds left. Gatlin finished with a layup in the closing seconds — he threw an inbounds pass off Smith’s back — to give Maryland a five-point edge in the final box score.
The memories of that moment, that game and that team still make him smile.
ESPN: You all had lost six of your previous seven road games entering that matchup in Chapel Hill. How confident was the team entering the game against North Carolina?
Gatlin: We were, at the time, really turning the corner and playing better. We started off that year 0-6 in the ACC and we had just played bad and couldn’t get over the hump. But we’d started playing better. On the flight down to North Carolina, we saw that the oddsmakers had us losing by 15. We said to ourselves, “We’re just not going to get beat by 15.” Ironically, I think we got down by 15 points in the game and came back in overtime.
ESPN: What was it like to play in that environment, with all the buzz around that building?
Gatlin: It’s great, as a competitor, because you know you’ve got 20-something-thousand fans against you. They don’t lose in that arena. With their tradition and with me being from North Carolina, it was always good to come home.
ESPN: After that game, Driesell said, “If Lenny Bias isn’t the best player in the world, then I don’t know who is.” When Bias entered that zone, the one he was in that night, how difficult was it to stop him?
Gatlin: You know the confidence we really had was because at any given moment Lenny could catch fire and just go off, and that’s exactly what he did. He went off on North Carolina. You’d pretty much give it to him in his sweet spots and let him go to work. He was a willing passer and he’d give it back to you, but he elevated so high on his jump shot that a hand up to him was really not a contest to him. There was no defense for that.
Lenny was so great that night. They’d just taken the 3-point shot back out, so he might’ve had 50. He just went on a tear. They tried size on him. They tried [6-foot-11] Warren Martin. Brad Daugherty. They went small with Steve Hale [6-foot-4]. They tried pretty much whoever they had. But he was just focused that night.
ESPN: What were you thinking as you approached the free throw line with seven seconds to play and a chance to seal the game?
Gatlin: I was thinking to myself, “Just finish the game.” We’d fought back. It’s a chance to get a big road win. Back then, to get a road win in the ACC was unheard of. You wanted to win your home games and maybe go .500 on the road. There were pros on every team, so winning on the road was a bonus. After a late timeout, everybody gave me that look like, “Let’s knock these down and let’s finish.”
ESPN: When you look back at that game and that moment, what’s your lasting memory?
Gatlin: That moment stands out because we were the first team to beat them there. To beat a team like that in the Dean Dome with all the tradition and to be the first team to beat them, that was special.