The outcome of the game was disappointing from a Tar Heel perspective, but impartial observers had to be impressed with the sheer spiritedness displayed by the State women that night, a spiritedness it took the Tar Heels a fully twenty minutes of basketball to match.
But that Friday night was no one-off. What the N.C. State women's team has accomplished since then for their coach transcends what anyone could have expected, even in the wake of that upset victory. Decades from now, when historians of ACC basketball recount what happened in the early 21st century, none will be able to overlook the remarkable chapter unfolding before our eyes the past few weeks as a courageous coach fully in the throes of a battle with cancer has inspired her team first to over-achievement and then to greatness.
The winning streak of February and even the stunning upset of Duke in the ACC Tournament look in retrospect now like appetizers for the main course: a stirring run through the NCAA Tournament. Tuesday night's overtime victory over Baylor in Raleigh was the stuff of folklore, or perhaps Hollywood: a coach overcoming physical discomfort, fatigue, and dehydration to be the calming presence needed to guide her troops past an equally capable opponent, being cheered on by thousands of fans. If your heart didn't melt a little watching that scene last night, you might want to go in for a ticker check-up.
It's only the past few years that I've had anything approaching the proper appreciation for Kay Yow. As a kid growing up, she was just another bad guy from the archrivals, and what's worse was she was winning at a time when UNC women's basketball wasn't on the map.
What changed all that was my trip in fall of 2002 to cover Larry Brown's induction to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Yow was inducted that night as well, and what her former player Summer Erb had to say about her mentor got my attention. Erb talked about the incredibly caring person Yow was and is, how she put the welfare of her players first, how she commanded the universal respect of her players.
In short, the kinds of characteristics Carolina fans have long liked to attribute to the program this guy named Smith built in our neck of the woods.
So that speech turned me into something of a Kay Yow fan. But even this year, like many casual observers, I had no real appreciation of the magnitude of the health challenge Yow is battling until reading a stunning profile in Sunday's New York Times (link), not of what Yow was going through a few months ago while on leave to battling cancer, but of what she's going through right now to be able to coach her team.
You've heard of pushing yourself to the limit? Yow is giving that phrase a new definition.
That's why I'm delighted State won last night, and why I'm wholeheartedly cheering for her team to take Coach Yow to her second Final Four in what could well be her final season on the sideline.
Don't get me wrong -- if the improbable happens and N.C. State and Carolina meet in an NCAA Tournament final, I'll be all about Ivory and the Tar Heels, just as I was a few days ago during the ACC Tournament final. I don't think Yow would want that any other way.
But until then, part of me will be bleeding red. There's a place for out-and-out partisanship in college sports, but there's also a place for recognizing courage and incredible leadership.
What Kay Yow and her team are doing this month transcends basketball. Win or lose the rest of the way, they have not only earned my admiration and support, but that (I feel sure) of many other Tar Heels and indeed the entire nation.
Thad Williamson is assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many and wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and uncbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. For an archive of some of his best articles from that period, visit http://www.thadwilliamson.net/sportsarchive.html