Crowning Moments in the Queen City: 1968-1970
Jan. 22, 2008
By Steve Phillips
For long-time Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fans, this year's return of the Men's Basketball Tournament to Charlotte will trigger a wave of nostalgia.
That might seem strange, given the fact the 55th annual tournament will be played March 13-16 in Bobcats Arena, an uptown venue that serves as home to an NBA team and didn't exist prior to 2005.
But this year marks the 40th anniversary of the tournament's first stint in Charlotte, a three-year run from 1968 through 1970 that produced some of the more memorable and stranger games in the event's storied history.
The original Charlotte Coliseum - which still stands on Independence Boulevard as Cricket Arena - was considered a prime venue for an up-and-coming league seeking to expand its horizons.
The first 13 ACC Tournaments were played at N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum before the Greensboro Coliseum played host to the event in 1967. Many viewed the Charlotte Coliseum, which seated a shade under 12,000 for college basketball, as the ideal neutral location. Though located within the state of North Carolina, it stood a relatively short drive from both the campuses of the University of South Carolina and Clemson University.
North Carolina won the tournament championship in 1968 and 1969, completing a run of three straight titles that re-established the Tar Heels as one of the nation's elite programs and cemented Dean Smith's reputations as one of the nation's brightest young coaches.
But for many, the most vivid memories of the first three Charlotte ACC Tournaments are of two games involving NC State. The Wolfpack set a standard for pre-shot clock strategic patience in a 12-10 upset of Duke in the 1968 semifinals. And State's upset of national power South Carolina in the 1970 championship game left its followers believing in miracles 13 years prior to Jim Valvano's magical NCAA title run.
1968: Slowdown, Then Deep Freeze
Those in attendance at the first Charlotte tournament's semifinal session thought they'd viewed the ultimate game after South Carolina pushed top-seeded North Carolina to the limit in Friday night's opener. The Tar Heels held off the Gamecocks for an 82-79 win behind 24 points from All-American Larry Miller and two clutch free throws by reserve guard Gerald Tuttle.
UNC's win set up a potential rematch of top-10 teams for the championship. Tenth-ranked Duke had edged the third-ranked Tar Heels 87-86 in a triple-overtime thriller at Durham in the regular-season finale just six days earlier.
But NC State had other ideas.
Wolfpack coach Norm Sloan, whose team had lost twice to the taller Blue Devils during the regular season, decided there was no point in allowing Duke to again pack back into a zone and force State to make outside shots or perish.
Sloan opted to open the game in a spread offense, with center Bill Kretzer doing most of the ball-handling. The plan, he said, was to force Duke to come after the Wolfpack and force the action.
The Blue Devils refused to take the bait, and State refused to depart from the plan. The halftime score stood 4-2 in favor of the Blue Devils. With just over three minutes to play in the game, Duke clung to an 8-6 lead.
Many among the Coliseum crowd grew restless and vocally voiced their displeasure. UNC play-by-play announcer Bill Currie informed his audience that the game was "about as exciting as artificial insemination." Sloan would field hundreds of questions about the strategy, both immediately following the game and for years that followed.
"It takes two teams to play a game like that one," Sloan said. "The slowdown game is a two-way street. Duke let us stand out there and hold the ball."
As the game reached the three-minute mark - and with Kretzer still dribbling away precious ticks of the clock - Sloan called star guard Eddie Biedenbach over to the sideline area for consultation. Tony Barone, Duke's 5-foot-8 senior, followed Biedenbach step-for-step.
"I said, `Eddie, with about 2:15 or 2:30 left, you get the ball and make something happen,' '' Sloan told former NC State assistant sports information Douglas Herkovich in 1993.
Biedenbach, pointing out that Barone was listening to their conversation, suggested calling timeout to set up a specific play.
"If we call time out, they'll take that midget out of the game and put in a real player," Sloan responded.
So Biedenbach followed Sloan's orders, and his 18-foot baseline jumper over Barone tied the score at 8-8. Duke gained the lead back briefly at 9-8, but Dick Braucher's rebound-follow shot with 40 seconds remaining put the Wolfpack ahead for keeps at 10-9.
"That hurt us more than any other single play in the game," said Duke coach Vic Bubas.
The Wolfpack sealed the victory with a pair of free-throws. The upset loss ended the national title hopes for the Blue Devils since only the ACC Tournament champion qualified for the NCAA Tournament field prior to 1975.
"My decision to lay back and wait was a bad one," Bubas said.
Sloan, who died in 2003, never made any apologies.
"It took guts on the part of our boys to go out there and do what they did," Sloan said. "I know it wasn't a thrilling game to watch, but they had the size and we had the quickness, and we came (to Charlotte) to win."
As Duke star Steve Vandenberg sat forlornly in the Blue Devil locker room, the pain and frustration showed.
"It was like fighting gnats," the 6-foot-7 Vandenberg said of contending with the smaller Wolfpack. "They were smaller, maybe quicker. When I went to the boards, it felt like they were crawling under my arms to get the ball. But that wasn't the difference in the game. There weren't that many rebounds."
Biedenbach felt the Wolfpack may have caught the Blue Devils looking ahead. State may also have benefited from its status as the underdog.
"I think Duke might have taken us for granted," Biedenbach said. "They had the lead most of the time, so they may have felt like the pressure was on us. But we felt like the pressure was on them."
Many speculated the Wolfpack would try a similar slowdown strategy against UNC in Saturday night's title game. But after leading by a modest 31-26 score at the half, the Tar Heels exploded for 56 second-half points en route to an 87-50 win. Miller, the tournament MVP, led five UNC players in double figures with 21 points.
Dean Smith said he left his players alone in the locker room to hold a "truth meeting" among themselves at the half, and whatever the Tar Heels came up with in the way of self-motivation obviously worked.
"We played two different halves," Smith said. "We hustled in the first half, but seemed flat. We came out and played our greatest second half of the season."
UNC advanced to the NCAA Tournament's championship game for the first time since 1957, but suffered a 78-55 defeat at the hands of Lew Alcindor and UCLA.
1969: Great Scott
If inspiration counted for anything, the Duke Blue Devils seemed to have it on their side as they entered the second ACC Tournament at the Charlotte Coliseum.
Bubas, whose 10 seasons as head coach had produced four ACC Tournament titles and three Final Fours, had announced that the 1969 season would be his last. The Blue Devils ended regular-season play with a 13-12 overall record but carrying the momentum of an 87-81 win over second-ranked UNC in the last game of the regular season. Duke hoped to keep riding the wave in Charlotte and provide its veteran coach with one more victory ride.
The Blue Devils opened the tournament with a 99-86 win over Virginia, then scored a 68-59 upset of South Carolina in the semifinals.
That set up a rematch with the top-seeded Tar Heels, who advanced to the title game with relatively little opposition. The revenge motive appeared to favor UNC, but Duke gained the early upper hand in the championship game by continuing to play from the heart.
The Blue Devils led 43-34 at halftime and pushed the spread to 11 points early in the second half. Making matters worse for the Tar Heels, senior starting guard Dick Grubar was sidelined by a knee injury that later proved to be season-ending.
The Tar Heels' season appeared destined to continue in the NIT, while Duke stood on the verge of punching an unlikely NCAA Tournament ticket. Then the Charlotte Coliseum turned into Charles Scott's showcase.
Scott, a junior Olympian and the first black scholarship player in any sport at UNC, lived for such moments. While Bubas felt good about Duke's chances when the Blue Devils grabbed a double-digit lead in the second half, the way Scott continued to carry himself on the court left him a shade uneasy.
"I looked down at the Carolina bench, and I felt like everybody except Charlie Scott felt like the game was over," Bubas said. "He was yelling, `Give the ball to me! I'll win the game!' And I am afraid that's what happened."
Scott all but single-handedly rallied the Tar Heels even, and then ahead. He hit off-balanced jump shots. He fearlessly drove the lane. He scored on the break. Of the 13 shots from the floor he attempted in the second half, 12 found their mark.
When the final buzzer sounded, UNC owned an 85-74 win and a third straight ACC Tournament crown. The 6-foot-6 Scott had 40 points, 29 of which had come in the second half.
"It was one of the finest performances I've ever seen, and his effort was contagious on all our players," Dean Smith said.
Bubas, who saw eight of his 10 Duke teams reach the ACC Tournament championship game, echoed Smith's congratulations.
"Charile Scott just accepted the individual challenge in the second half," Bubas said. "When a guy makes 30-foot jump shots going to his left, falling into the crowd and makes 40 points, the only thing you can say is, `Nice going.' "
Bubas accepted a position as Duke's vice-president for community relations shortly afterward and eventually became the first commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference. He never returned to college coaching, but Smith acknowledged receiving the ultimate scare in Bubas' swan song.
"I want to wish Coach Bubas luck as he enters another field," Smith said following the '69 title game. "There were times tonight when I wished I were in another field."
The Tar Heels reached the Final Four once again before falling to Purdue in the national semifinals, but not before Scott further sealed his status as a legend. He capped a 32-point performance against Davidson in the East Regional finals with a 25-foot jump shot that produced an 87-85 win at the buzzer.
"(He) could do it all," Smith said of the New York native. "Charles had the whole package."
1970: King-sized Upset in the Queen City
Lew Alcindor had graduated from UCLA the previous spring. While the Bruins remained college basketball's premier program, at least one team seemed to have a chance to break their stranglehold on the national title.
To most, South Carolina was the best bet. The Gamecocks boasted a talented and confident crew of upperclassmen that included All-America guard John Roche and inside players Tom Owens and John Ribock. USC, coached by brash veteran Frank McGuire, even received the nod as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press' preseason rankings and never slipped below No. 4 at any point during the regular season.
Things appeared to be falling perfectly into place for the Gamecocks as they rolled into Charlotte for the 17th annual ACC Tournament. USC held a No. 3 national ranking and 23-2 overall record. That included a 14-0 mark in ACC play, with league teams sometimes providing little more than token opposition. If the Gamecocks survived Charlotte, as most assumed they would, the East Regional was set to be played on their home floor in Columbia, S.C., the following week.
It was hard to picture the scenario getting much better for USC, but it actually did in the tournament's opening round. The Gamecocks survived a 34-33 scare from eighth-seeded Clemson, then watched seventh-seeded Virginia upset No. 2 seed North Carolina in the second game of the afternoon session. The door appeared to open just a little wider.
But things turned sour during a 79-63 win over Wake Forest in the semifinals. Roche suffered a severely sprained ankle, and there were doubts he would suit up for the championship game against third-seeded NC State.
The Wolfpack, which had barely dodged another upset bid by Virginia in the semifinals, fell behind by 11 points early in the second half against USC. But that didn't prevent State from continuing to spread its offense and patiently attacking the taller Gamecocks - shades, to a lesser degree, of the upset of Duke in 1968.
And it didn't prevent McGuire from inserting Roche into the game just three minutes in. Despite the ankle injury, Roche would wind up gutting out 47 minutes after State chipped away at the lead and forced the game into double-overtime. The decision to play Roche was one McGuire later said he regretted.
The low-scoring game ended tied at 35 in regulation. When USC missed potential game-winning shots at the regulation buzzer and again in the first overtime, the Wolfpack began to sense destiny just might be on its side.
That proved to be the case with the Gamecocks clinging to a 39-38 lead in the waning seconds of the second OT. State's Ed Leftwich stole the ball from USC's Bobby Cremins and drove for a go-ahead lay-up. USC failed to convert on its ensuing possession, and Rick Anheuser knocked down two free throws to seal a 42-39 Wolfpack win.
With sudden swiftness, the Gamecocks' hopes of a national title were over. So, in fact, was their season. NCAA rules prevented a school that was hosting a regional from participating in the NIT. The Wolfpack made the trip to Columbia, where it fell to St. Bonaventure in the opening round.
McGuire was livid after the '70 championship game, claiming Cremins had been fouled on Leftwich's steal. How obvious did McGuire regard the no-call?
"Cremins has a sprained finger," McGuire said.
Roche finished 4-of-17 from the floor and later revealed his sprained ankle needed six weeks to heal. But on the night of his most bitter loss, the USC junior offered no alibis.
"There was a loss of mobility, and I was about 50 percent," Roche admitted. "But that's no excuse. I expected to win anyway. The shots wouldn't drop. I lost the game for us, nobody else. I blew it."
McGuire told sportswriter Ron Morris that the 1970 loss seemed to follow "a pattern of things that go against me" when it came to ACC Tournament play.
"Another case of playing Russian Roulette," McGuire said. "Even the fans threw things at me and my players as we walked off the court."
Cremins took the loss hardest of all. He secluded himself in the mountains of North Carolina and did not return to Columbia for several weeks.
"There was a lot of controversy in that game," Cremins said. "I felt like I let Coach McGuire down."
The ACC Tournament would not return to Charlotte for another 20 years. Cremins would return as well, and this time he would emerge victorious.
"Crowning Moments in the Queen City" returns on February 5.