- Associated Press - Monday, June 27, 2011

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Lorenzo Charles, the muscular forward whose last-second dunk gave underdog North Carolina State a stunning win in the 1983 national college championship game, was killed Monday when a bus he was driving crashed along a highway, a company official said.

Elite Coach general manager Brad Jackson said Charles, 47, worked for the company and was driving one of its buses on Interstate 40. No passengers were aboard.

He grabbed Dereck Whittenburg’s 30-foot shot and dunked it at the buzzer to give the Wolfpack a 54-52 win over heavy favorite Houston and its second national title, sending coach Jim Valvano spilling onto the court, scrambling for someone to hug in what has become one of the lasting images of the NCAA tournament.

Whittenburg was despondent when discussing his teammate and friend with The Associated Press.

“It’s just an awful day,” Whittenburg said. “An awful, awful day.”

Charles secured his spot in N.C. State lore in the final moments of that game in Albuquerque, N.M., to cap off an improbable run to the championship. N.C. State entered the NCAA tournament with a 17-10 record, having beaten Virginia to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and an automatic berth into the national field. No one expected much.

“It’s still kind of amazing to me that … people are still talking about it,” Charles said in an excerpt from his comments about the championship game on his N.C. State Web page. “I remember when (it) first happened, I figured I would have my 15 minutes of fame and that would be it. Here we are and it is still a conversational piece. I don’t really think that was the only great Final Four finish that has been played since then, but for some reason people just single out that game and talk about it. Maybe because it was such a David and Goliath thing.”

Police released little about the one-vehicle crash that took Charles‘ life. Video shows the windshield broken out with tree limbs sticking through the window frame. The rear wheels of the bus were on an embankment, leaving the right front tire elevated from the road.

Charles finished his college career two years after the championship win with 1,535 total points _ 15th on the school’s scoring list _ and his .575 shooting percentage in 1985 remains a school record for seniors.

In the 1983 run, Charles hit two free throws with 23 seconds left in the West Regional finals against the Cavaliers to give the Wolfpack a 63-62 win and the spot in the Final Four.

Their semifinal win over Georgia sent them to the matchup with the Cougars, known as Phi Slamma Jamma in those years and led by stars Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Michael Young, director of basketball operations at Houston, was a member of the team that let a national championship slip away. He told KRIV-TV in Houston that he’s never quite gotten over Charles‘ heroics.

“For him to dunk the ball at that moment to win the game, it was one of the most heartbreaking moments I have ever felt in my whole career,” Young said. “Twenty-eight years later, it’s still with me. Every day somebody asks me about it. I thought I was going to get away with it today and then you called me. I’m very sorry to hear what happened.”

Valvano also became famous for his emotional burst onto the court afterward, running around almost in disbelief. Valvano died in 1993 after his public fight with cancer.

NC State retired Charles‘ No. 43 jersey in 2008, the 25th anniversary of the championship.

Thurl Bailey, one of Charles‘ teammates on the championship team, said it’s tough to accept that the player who made the game-winning dunk is gone.

“But I heard someone say, I was talking to them on the phone about this, that Jimmy V finally found somebody to hug,” Bailey told WRAL-TV.

Current coach Mark Gottfried said his staff had just gotten acquainted with Charles and was saddened to hear the news.

“He holds a special place in Wolfpack history and in the hearts of generations of fans,” Gottfried said in a statement. “We just reconnected with him last week and our staff was stunned to hear this terrible news.”

ACC Commissioner John Swofford said Charles‘ play had an uplifting impact.

“As a former player, he made us believe in the amazing and all of us in the ACC send out our thoughts and prayers to his entire family,” Swofford said in a statement.

Charles played one season in the NBA, averaging 3.4 points in 36 games with the Atlanta Hawks in 1985-86, and played internationally and in the Continental Basketball Association until 1999.

A message left on a phone listed to Lorenzo Charles wasn’t immediately returned Monday night.

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Associated Press writers Joedy McCreary in Raleigh and Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this report.