MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH

Ohio State men’s basketball coach uses experiences
from 15 years ago at WCU to motivate his players

By TODD JONES

The shot was so pure, a silk stroke launched toward history. “A good look” is how Thad Matta remembers it 15 years later. His boss at the time can still see the basketball floating on the game’s final possession. “I thought it was going in,” Phil Hopkins recalled.

Thad Matta, who as an assistant coach helped guide the
WCU men’s basketball program to its only NCAA tournament
appearance, is now prowling the sidelines at Ohio State.
Photo by Jamie Sabau, courtesy Ohio State University

Only it didn’t. The open 3-point shot by Joel Flemming ’98 hit the back of the rim and bounced long to teammate Joe Stafford ’04, who tossed up a 15-foot runner that would have forced overtime.

That shot missed, too. Game over. Purdue, a No. 1 seed, had escaped with a 73-71 victory over 16th-seeded Western Carolina in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament. History still awaits someone. A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed.

“You can ‘what if’ yourself to death, but things happen for a reason,” Hopkins, then-coach of WCU, said. Today, he’s in his 11th year as a teacher, athletic director and coach of the boys and girls basketball teams at Walhalla Middle School in South Carolina. “I’m where I’m supposed to be, and Thad is where he’s supposed to be,” Hopkins said.

His top assistant during the 1995-96 season was Matta, a gum-chomping newlywed living in Cullowhee on a $30,000 salary. “I thought I was the richest man in the world,” said Matta, who made about $2.5 million this season as coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, the top seed of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

To be sure, Ohio State’s players were lectured by Matta about how WCU nearly toppled a Purdue powerhouse. “The greatest thing that game did for my career is, now as a No. 1 seed, I’ve got a hell of a story to tell my players,” Matta said.

Matta impressed everyone at WCU as a cyclone of energy and enthusiasm. He would liven up practice by giving drills funny names. He would cut up little paper 3’s and mail them to hot-shooting prospects so they would fall out of an envelope like confetti. He subscribed to a newspaper in a small Nebraska town in order to mail articles back to a recruit there, just to let him know Western Carolina was watching. “I knew he was destined to be a great coach,” said Orlando Early, a South Carolina assistant coach who also served on the 1995-96 WCU staff. “He wasn’t the head coach, but he had kind of a presence with our team.”

Matta, Early and fellow assistant Martin Unger ’97 were so earnest that they heard the tournament bracket announced and immediately drove three hours to Charlotte to pick up game tapes of the Boilermakers from a fellow coach. They watched video into the wee hours and liked what they saw, even though Purdue was 25-5 and Western Carolina 17-12, having earned an automatic NCAA bid by winning the Southern Conference tournament. “I felt like we had a shot,” Matta said. “They were a No. 1 seed, but they had a couple of chinks in their armor. They weren’t a great shooting team.”

Matta drew up most of the scouting report, which called for a zone defense. “We felt the longer the game went and the closer the score was, the tighter they would be,” Hopkins said. “We called it pucker power.” The game played out as hoped. Purdue struggled to make shots and the score remained close.

“I’ve never been in a louder building than that was,” Matta said. “When the game started, there was nobody there, maybe 2,000 people. But as the game went on, more and more people kept coming in for the next game, and they sensed an upset. They wanted to watch history.”

It appeared they were going to see it on the game’s final possession when Fleming took his 3-pointer from the top of the key. “I thought that baby was going in,” said Unger, now an assistant coach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “If it was 2 inches shorter, it was a swish.”

Used in edited form with permission of The Columbus Dispatch.