Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fab Four

Al McGuire, as only he could, went out in style. With the Marquette Warriors putting the finishing touches on a 67-59 victory over North Carolina in the 1977 NCAA championship game, the retiring coach sat down on the MU bench and bawled his eyes out.

It’s a powerful image, one that came to represent college basketball that season. But it also overshadows that year’s semifinals, which should rank among the greatest Final Fours.

It was a field bursting with storylines. There were the blue-blooded Tar Heels, the clear favorite but also ravaged by injuries. They were also still looking to get Dean Smith his first title. UNC-Charlotte, from the same state as the Heels but miles apart in talent, made its first Final Four appearance. UNLV was led by its charming rogue of a coach, Jerry Tarkanian, and led the nation in scoring at an absurd 107 points per game. Marquette had been in a late-season tailspin, but the Warriors faithful hoped McGuire’s imminent retirement would galvanize the team.

The two semifinals at the Omni in Atlanta would be decided by a total of three points.

UNC-Charlotte and Marquette squared off in the opening match. The 49ers, in their first NCAA Tournament, were led by stars Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell and Lew Massey. McGuire’s final team had irrepressible offensive talents Bo Ellis and Butch Lee and key role players like Jim Boylan, Jerome Whitehead and Bill Neary.

Charlotte seemed overwhelmed by the moment in the early going. The 49ers were flummoxed by Marquette’s changing defenses and fell behind by 14 points. Charlotte’s defense dug in, however, switching easily between man-to-man and exotic zones (even the obscure 1-1-3 set). The 49ers went on a 13-2 run and headed into the locker room facing only a 25-22 deficit.

The second half would be tight the whole way. Marquette had shot poorly, but the 49ers’ zone defenses had given Whitehead (16 rebounds) enough space to attack the offensive glass. Charlotte’s swarming defenders had taken Lee (who shot 5 of 18) out of the flow until the final minutes, when the star of the Puerto Rican national team hit two clutch buckets.

Marquette eventually went ahead, 49-47, until Maxwell sank a tough leaner in the lane with five seconds left.

McGuire called time out with three seconds on the clock, then took the time to examine the height of the scoreboard at the Omni and calculate how the parabola of a court-length pass would be affected. Satisfied with the answer, the coach of the Jesuit school’s team drew up a play in which Lee heaved a “Hail Mary” to Ellis or Whitehead at the other end.

The prayer was answered when the ball glanced off the hands of the long-limbed Maxwell and right to the waiting Whitehead, who found himself wide open for a half-dunk/half-layup that almost bounced off the rim. The ball found the net, though, and after some anxious discussion among officials at the scorer’s table, Marquette was awarded the 51-49 victory.

Lee-to-Whitehead has been shunted aside in the annals of full-court final plays, getting lost behind U.S.S.R’s controversial bomb against the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics and the Grant Hill-Christian Laettner connection in the 1992 tournament. Milwaukee is probably the only place that remembers Marquette’s miracle play as well as those others.

How could the second semifinal in 1977 ever top that? The Tar Heels and Runnin’ Rebels tried to burn their own mark in the popular memory by playing at warp speed.

Tarkanian’s first great squad at UNLV boasted six players that would be chosen in the 1977 NBA draft. The draft was eight rounds deep back then, but UNLV’s Glen Gondrezick, Eddie Owens and Larry Moffet were all picked in the second round.

The Tar Heels had battled injuries all season. Team leader Tommy LaGarde was out for the season with a broken leg. Walter Davis (broken finger) and Phil Ford (elbow) were both not quite right in the NCAA Tournament.

The Rebels, who also had Reggie Theus, took a 49-43 lead at the break. But the Tar Heels caught fire in the second half, including a 14-0 run that gave UNC control. John Kuester made 5 of 6 free throws in the final minutes, giving the Tar Heels the 84-83 victory.

Fans who watched both games got the defensive chess match and a once-in-a-lifetime finish in the first semifinal. Then they were treated to offensive fireworks in the nightcap, with UNC shooting 59% and UNLV at 51%. That Final Four should be remembered as fondly as McGuire’s last game.

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