We were not the first ones to camp outside an arena for the best available tickets to a men’s college basketball game. But we certainly were the first students in UNC Charlotte history to forgo studying for the love of our 49ers.
When the ticket window finally opened that morning in March of 1977, the 49th student pass distributed landed in my hands and I was ready to head down I-85 to Atlanta for the Final Four. Thus, there are personal reasons to believe the ’77 Final Four remains one of the most overlooked yet thrilling and memorable championships in tournament history.
There most certainly has never been a Final Four with such scintillating story lines. That Final Four had a little bit of everything, from UNCC being one of the first “Cinderella” teams in tournament history, to Dean Smith falling just short – again – of winning his first title at UNC, to the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels playing the role of tournament villain, to Marquette capturing the crown in the final game for its head coach, Al McGuire.
Nearly 40 years has not changed my conviction that Marquette was the fourth-best team in the field. The Warriors, as they were known then, had the great fortune of defeating UNCC in the semifinals on a tipped, length-of-the-court pass and layup at the buzzer, followed by a title-game victory over a UNC team playing with an injured point guard, All-American Phil Ford.
Much like N.C. State’s later run to the NCAA championship in 1983, it seemed like Marquette was destined to win the championship. The Warriors entered the post-season ranked No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll and concluded the season with the most losses (seven) by any championship team to that point.
It was not as if Marquette was void of talent. The Warriors had stars in Butch Lee, Bo Ellis and Jerome Whitehead. They also had the street-smart McGuire leading from the sideline, a veteran coach known for being as much a motivator as a court maestro.
None of that seemingly could match either the talent or the coaching guile of either UNLV or UNC. There was no seeding for the NCAA tournament that year. Had there been, both the fourth-ranked Runnin’ Rebels and fifth-seeded Tar Heels surely would have earned spots on the top line of their respective regions.
UNLV ran through the regular-season with a 25-2 record by topping 100 points in a game an NCAA-record 23 times, including 12 straight at one point. The team called itself the “Hardwood Eight,” and seven of those players – Lewis Brown, Geln Gondrezick, Larry Moffett, Eddie Owens, Robert Smith, Sam Smith and Reggie Theus – eventually played in the NBA.
UNLV equally was recognized for its bandit image, one perpetuated by its legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian who seemed to overlook NCAA rules with the same fervor that he chewed towels on the sideline. Furman Bisher, the esteemed columnist for the Atlanta Constitution at the time, wrote of UNLV before the Final Four: “You look down that bench and you wonder, ‘Who has the getaway car?’ ”
UNLV’s semifinal matchup with UNC provided an interesting contrast with Smith considered the consummate follower of the rules who touted his program’s near-perfect graduation rate as much as his team’s conference championships. Yet despite reaching the Final Four previously in 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1972, the national crown still had eluded Smith.
The ’77 edition of the Tar Heels provided his best chance yet to win it all. UNC was as talented as UNLV with seven future NBA players – Dudley Bradley, Walter Davis, Ford, John Kuester, Tom LaGarde, Mike O’Koren and Rich Yonaker.
Unfortunately, Ford hyperextended his shooting elbow in UNC’s East Regional final win over Kentucky. The injury clearly affected Ford’s play in the Tar Heels semifinal decision over UNLV. It showed most in his shooting with a four-of-10 performance.
UNCC, the upstart
Marquette reached the title game with a dramatic win over UNCC, the upstart program that just a few years earlier had gotten around to adopting a fight song. The previous season UNCC had to pull some strings with the NIT just to appear in that event, then defeated N.C. State in the semifinals before bowing to Kentucky in the championship game.
To reach Atlanta, UNCC first had to turn back Central Michigan in overtime, then dispose of sixth-ranked Syracuse and No. 1-ranked Michigan. By then, the country understood that coach Lee Rose had a formidable team with stars Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, Lew Massey and Chad Kinch.
My biased view from The Omni’s opposite baseline showed that Jerome Whitehead’s winning basket for Marquette against UNCC was a split-second after time expired. This was before game officials could check replays at the scorer’s table, so they instead huddled and determined that Whitehead had scored in the final second of play for the 51-49 win. Replays later confirmed the officials’ call.
The NCAA also staged consolation games back then. Again, my biased view was that UNLV’s 106-94 win over UNCC in the consolation game was much more entertaining than Marquette’s 67-59 win over UNC in the championship game.
There remain two distinct memories from the title game. First, Ford again suffered through a four-of-10 shooting night. Had he been healthy, there is no doubt Smith would have won his first national championship that night instead of five years later. Also, I can still see McGuire crying on the sideline in the waning seconds of his final game as a head coach.
Now that was a Final Four to remember.