Long before “trust the process” was the mantra of hoops teams across the state of Pennsylvania, a lede came on the AP news wire that sent shockwaves through the college basketball community.
“Move over Joe Paterno. Penn State’s basketball program wants a share of the spotlight.”
On March 18, 2001, seventh-seeded Penn State men’s basketball managed to oust No. 2 North Carolina 82-74 and advance to its first Sweet 16 since the 1950s.
16 years ago to this day, the Nittany Lions set themselves up for that game with the Tar Heels after securing an opening round 69-59 victory against No. 10 Providence. It was their first tournament appearance in five years after getting upset as a five-seed by No. 12 Arkansas in 1996.
2000-01 was an impressive season for Jerry Dunn’s squad before the tournament — registering a road upset of No. 22 Kentucky and making it to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Still, that didn’t mean confidence was high back in Happy Valley.
“I just didn’t think they’d get past Providence in the first round,” Penn State student Jeremy Bennett told ESPN. “The normal Penn State couldn’t beat Carolina in basketball. Football? Bring ’em on. But not basketball.”
And, well, it definitely didn’t even seem like Penn State could beat the Tar Heels from the start.
North Carolina jumped out to a 19-8 lead, dominated the boards, and controlled early portions of the game like a defending Final Four team would be expected to against the Nittany Lions.
Julius Peppers (yes, the nine-time Pro Bowl defensive end) was the force behind the Tar Heels in the final game of his basketball career — finishing with a team-high 21 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double.
It would take a late surge for the Nittany Lions to cut their deficit to 40-39 at halftime. Coming out of the break, they were not going to let this opportunity slip away.
Backcourt duo Joe Crispin and Titus Ivory each had team-high 21-point efforts, while forward Gyasi Cline-Heard put up 19 points. The three seniors moved Penn State into the driver’s seat with minutes to go.
Ivory, a Charlotte native who once dreamed of playing for the Tar Heels, buried them down the stretch as he shot 67 percent.
Clinging to a slim lead, the Nittany Lions hit back-to-back clutch jumpers around the one-minute mark from Ivory and Brandon Watkins — a sophomore that averaged three points per game for his first bucket of the contest — before they could ice it out from the foul line.
It was all over as Cline-Heard, per tradition, carried the Nittany Lion off the floor on his back. Penn State had secured one of the school’s greatest upsets on the hardwood of all-time.
North Carolina coach Matt Doherty was tearful in the post-game press conference after his team conceded 28 points off turnovers to help Penn State to the upset.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever watch the tape,” Doherty said afterwards. “You can’t turn the ball over 22 times and expect to win the game.”
According to ESPN, support for basketball back in State College was at a high, but the Nittany Lions couldn’t follow up the shocking win.
Penn State was taken out by a lower seed, No. 11 Temple, in the Sweet 16 and was ousted by the Owls again in its next NCAA Tournament game a decade later. Those were the only two tournament games since for the team that hasn’t won in the Big Dance since defeating the Tar Heels in 2001.