Tudor: UNC's '77 loss to Marquette still stings

Staff WriterMarch 24, 2011 

Bruce Buckley will watch on television Friday night when his school, North Carolina, faces Marquette in the NCAA East semifinals at Newark's Prudential Center.

While the Charlotte lawyer watches, he'll also remember.

He'll think back to Atlanta and the 1977 national championship game between the same two schools.

"I'm sure it'll bring back memories," Buckley said. "I just hope this one ends the other way around."

Buckley, then a senior reserve forward, and the '77 Tar Heels lost that game in the Omni, 67-59, in what is still widely recalled as Dean Smith's worst moment in a 36-year coaching career at UNC.

Having defeated talented, quick Nevada-Las Vegas, 84-83, in a wild semifinal game, the Heels were favored by five points to win the title that had so often eluded Smith's best teams.

The fact that Al McGuire and his Warriors (now Golden Eagles) had been outplayed throughout against upstart UNC Charlotte before surviving 51-49 in the other semifinal only added to the assumption that UNC couldn't miss.

Having watched freshman forward Mike O'Koren destroy UNLV with a 31-point outburst, it was easy for casual fans to overlook the fact that UNC was in an awful way physically.

Star guard Phil Ford from Rocky Mount was playing in a limited role as the result of a badly swollen elbow and a lingering knee injury.

All-star wingman Walter Davis of Charlotte was playing with a broken finger.

And center Tom LaGarde, the Heels' best big man, had been out of the lineup for weeks with a knee injury.

"We were really beaten up," Buckley said. "That's not an excuse. It was just the way things had gone for us."

In McGuire's last game, the Warriors began with the sort of explosiveness they didn't show against the 49ers.

With Ford watching much of the first half, Marquette led 39-27 at the break before UNC staged the sort of unlikely rally that had marked its play dating to mid-February.

"We'd won a lot of games in a row [15], and most of them had been close. We'd been behind in several of them," Buckley said.

With Buckley's defensive help on Marquette big men Bo Ellis, Jerome Whitehead and Bernard Toone, the Heels scored 18 points in the first six minutes of the second half and took a small lead.

Smith then went to the four corners offensive delay game that had saved his team in three of the previous four NCAA games.

This time, the tactic didn't work. Ford struggled to keep pace, and for the first time in weeks, fellow guard John Kuester had trouble picking up the slack.

With 1:50 left, the Warriors took a 53-51 lead and McGuire went to his delay game.

A poor free-throwing shooting team for much of that season, the Warriors collectively converted 23 of 25 free throws.

"It was a terrible feeling," Buckley said. "We'd gone through so much, but we just couldn't win the one we wanted most."

Smith took a beating in the national media. Columns and cartoons ridiculed his four corners ploy.

McGuire, in the postgame interviews, added to the stir by saying "they fell apart in the second half. We hung in there.

"We put in a four corners just yesterday [Sunday, March 27] in the hour allotted us for practice. We figured to run it and look for the good shot, keeping the big men underneath. It was a chess game."

Yet '77 probably was Smith's best coaching job overall.

To reach the Final Four, the hobbled Heels had overcome Purdue (69-66), Notre Dame (on St. Patrick's Day and Buckley's 22nd birthday, 79-77) and Kentucky (79-72) before facing UNLV with a lineup that included five future NBA players.

While Smith was getting flamed in the minutes immediately after the game, Buckley said the coach was calm in the locker room.

"Coach was the same as usual," Buckley said. "He thanked the seniors for everything during the season and our careers. He said we gave it our best, and that was pretty much it. I don't remember him being out of sorts or anything like that. He wasn't mad at all."

Smith, in his remarks, saluted McGuire's big zone defense and pointed out the Heels were beaten at their own game.

"They hit all of their free throws down the stretch. Of course, that is what we did to get here," Smith said.

With that, he left and picked up the recruiting chase for Georgia high school star Al Wood, who later would help Smith's 1981 team reach another championship game - only to lose to Indiana, Bob Knight and Isiah Thomas in Philadelphia.

It would be 1982 before Smith and the Tar Heels began to erase the memories of McGuire, Marquette and the night the four corners finally failed.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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