Looking Back... The 1969 ACC Basketball Tournament
March 12, 2009
Forty years ago, the fourth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels saw their dreams slipping away. Their season was on the line in the ACC Tournament Championship game and things weren’t going well. Then junior wing Charlie Scott put together the greatest half of basketball in ACC Tournament history, riding to the rescue, as dramatically and as effectively as any cavalry charge in any western movie you’ve ever seen.
First, some context, Carolina was on a roll in the late 1960s, winning the ACC regular-season and tournament in 1967 and 1968. The Tar Heels advanced to the 1968 NCAA title game, where they fell to Lew Alcindor and UCLA 78-55.
That team’s best player, All-America forward Larry Miller, was a senior in 1968 but Dean Smith welcomed back four starters in 1969, Scott and a trio of seniors, Rusty Clark, Bill Bunting and Dick Grubar.
Scott developed into a star but Bunting had the most dramatic improvement. A skinny 6’9” forward, Bunting had been a starter in 1967 and 1968, averaging just under 8 points per game; a textbook complementary player. But Bunting saw an opportunity with the graduation of Miller and improved his skills, strength and stamina. He averaged 18 points per game in 1969 and was named first-team All-ACC.
North Carolina finished first in the ACC at 12-2, splitting with South Carolina and Duke. St. John’s handed the Tar Heels their only non-conference loss and Carolina spent the entire season ranked second, third or fourth.
There were two sub-plots going into the tournament, held that year in Charlotte. Scott was averaging 22 points per game for the league’s top team and was the only ACC player recognized by AP or UPI; he was second-team All-American on both lists.
Scott thought that merited the league’s Player of the Year award. However, he lost to South Carolina’s John Roche 56 votes to 39 and was left off a handful of first-team All-ACC ballots. As the ACC’s first African American star, Scott wondered out loud if race played a role in some voters’ minds. Forty years later, Scott says, “I thought it was a slap in the face. It definitely was a motivator for me. It’s the only time in the ACC I felt slighted.”
Then there was Vic Bubas, Duke’s successful coach. Only 42 years old, Bubas was giving up coaching, “I just decided it was time to do something different,” he recalls. “I had to be honest with my players. I wanted to keep it secret but the news leaked out.”
Bubas had struggled through a difficult final season. There were chemistry issues between the sophomore and senior classes and consistency was hard to find. But Bubas settled on a line-up, compressed his rotation and Duke upset North Carolina 87-81 in his final home game. Could Duke ride a wave of emotion to an upset tournament title?
Duke did get a break, winning a three-way drawing to break a tie for third place.
The tournament’s opening day was routine. North Carolina, South Carolina and Duke easily handled Clemson, Maryland and Virginia. The only compelling game was the 4/5 game between the two teams that had lost the draw; Wake Forest defeated North Carolina State 81-73.
North Carolina and 13th-ranked South Carolina were the ACC’s only ranked teams. Frank McGuire’s Gamecocks were led by sophomores Roche, Tom Owens and Billy Walsh, and junior Bobby Cremins. Despite their youth, South Carolina had gone through the ACC regular season at 11-3 and had defeated Duke twice that season; in fact they went into the tournament with a four-game winning streak against Duke. Bunting remembers, “South Carolina being more worrisome than Duke. It seemed like they had passed Duke a bit. We thought they were our toughest competitor.”
So maybe Duke did North Carolina a favor. The South Carolina-Duke matchup was one of the stranger games in ACC Tournament history. Neither team used a single substitute. Duke led most of the game, a lead maintained by senior guard Dave Golden, who hit five late jumpers. South Carolina countered by making 19 of 20 foul shots.
Duke was up 60-59 when South Carolina began to foul. But McGuire’s team only had three team fouls and needed to get to seven to force Duke to the line. Duke gave the ball to their best ball-handler, Dick DeVenzio, who was fouled three times in short order. The last of the three was so flagrant that South Carolina was called for an intentional foul. Duke turned this into a game-clinching four-point possession.
Golden led all scorers with 18 points, as Duke pulled off the upset, 68-59.
North Carolina had won ten straight against Wake Forest but the Deacons made the favorites sweat in the other semi-final. The Deacons led 37-29 at intermission and 43-34 with 16 minutes left. Scott didn’t do much in the first 30 minutes or so but Grubar and Bunting kept Carolina close. With UNC up 65-64, Scott converted a three-point play out of the four corners and Carolina pulled away down the stretch. The final was 80-72, with Scott scoring 10 of his 23 points in the final 4 minutes. Grubar matched Scott, while guards Charlie Davis and Jerry Montgomery led Wake Forest with 30 and 27 points respectively.
On paper, the North Carolina-Duke title matchup was a mismatch. North Carolina was 24-3, Duke 15-12. But the Blue Devils desperately wanted to keep alive Vic Bubas’ coaching career and their season.
Bubas again went with an iron five, seniors Steve Vandenberg, Fred Lind and Golden, and sophomores Randy Denton and DeVenzio. Duke would get only 12 minutes and no points from its bench but each of its starters would score in double figures. Duke controlled the first half. Denton was outplaying Clark inside, Golden was hitting from the perimeter, and DeVenzio was handling the pressure.
Duke led 43-34 at intermission. Smith cut short his halftime, telling the press following the game, “I wanted the players to sit there a minute and decide how much they wanted this championship.”
Smith had plenty of other concerns to occupy his mind. Grubar went down with a knee injury late in the first half. The injury would end Grubar’s season and effectively ended his career, although he had a cup of coffee in the ABA. This was a significant loss. Grubar was a three-year starter, a heady playmaker and defensive stopper, a second-team All-ACC player.
Bunting also was in foul trouble. He would foul out with almost ten minutes left, scoring half of his 18 point-per-game-average. With Clark and Bunting having ho-hum games, unheralded sophomore Lee Dedmon gave North Carolina a huge lift off the bench, scoring 19 points, with 11 rebounds. He made 5 of 6 field goals in the second half.
Reserves Jim Delaney and Gerald Tuttle took over Grubar’s spot. Delaney scored five points, while Tuttle added as couple of assists. But down the stretch, the other nine players were the supporting cast to Scott’s leading-actor role. Scott was a highly-skilled, athletic and fiercely-competitive 6’6” player. Bunting says, “He may have been the fastest player with the ball in UNC history. You couldn’t stand around and admire him, because he’d leave you behind. But if you got down the floor, you were going to get some easy baskets because no defense is going to ignore Charlie Scott with the basketball in his hands.”
Grubar’s injury put the ball in Scott’s hands and that may have helped North Carolina. UNC forward Joe Brown remembers, “Leading the break, handling the ball, after Dick went out, it was always in Charlie’s hands. That’s a lot of pressure on a defense.”
Duke’s biggest lead was 11 at 53-42, with 17:18 left. Denton says, “We wanted it so bad and it was so close.”
It took only five minutes for Scott to erase the lead. He hit six field goals in that spurt, tying the game at 56 with just under 13 minutes left. Scott hit another for a 58-56 lead. Scott recalls, “With Dick out, I felt like the burden was on me. I started hitting shots and demanding the ball. Sometimes you get into a rhythm where you can’t do anything wrong. I felt like everything was going in.”
Well, not everything. Scott did miss one of his 14 field-goal attempts in the second half. Bubas recalls, Scott “hitting one falling into the stands. I turned to my assistants and said ‘what are you going to do about that?’”
Denton gives a defender’s perspective, “He kept us back on our heels. He would attack and then just jump up and shoot over us. He wouldn’t miss. I kept challenging him and turning around for a rebound. But I ended up just picking the ball out of the net. He was so good at creating shots. We didn’t have anyone who could defend him.”
Still, despite Scott and the lack of a bench contribution, Duke hung tough, tying the game once more at 69-69, with 7:20 left. Denton said the “adrenaline of the title game” kept fatigue at bay.
Carolina got the final run. Clark hit two foul shots, Dedmon dropped a 15-footer and Carolina went to the four corners, up 75-70. Then, Scott made the game’s signature play. Handling the ball in the spread, Scott says, “A lane opened up. Maybe they thought I was going to pass.” He didn’t pass, instead going straight at Denton, Duke’s 6’11”, 250-pound center, Scott, “jumped as high as I could,” scored and drew the foul.
The three-point play salted it away. The Blue Devils missed 10 of their final 12 field goals and fell 85-74.
Scott ended the game with 40 points, 28 in that stunning second half. He made 17-23 from the field, more than a few of which would have counted for three points under today’s rules. Led by Scott, UNC shot 56.7% from the field in the second half after a woeful 32.5% before intermission. Denton led Duke with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Bubas went into administration, first at Duke and then as Commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference. He has no regrets, “I’ve never been a person who second-guesses my life. We wanted that season to continue. We gave our best, I gave my best. We just fell victim to a great performance.”
Brown and Bunting still have vivid memories of Scott’s dominance. Brown says, “He just put us on his back and carried us.” Bunting adds, “Charlie was a second-half player and we expected him to play well in the clutch. Still, this was pretty special.”
Scott had another spectacular tournament, a week later, scoring 54 points in close wins over Duquesne and Davidson that sent Carolina to their third consecutive Final Four; in fact he ranks the buzzer-beater that put away Davidson 87-85 as equal to his ACC heroics. But not better.
Scott says of that weekend in Charlotte, “There was a lot of fear involved. There was a lot at stake. This was the only way we could get to the NCAAs and I could not let our season end. We had injuries, foul troubles. All these things play on your psyche. I didn’t make a conscious decision to take over but when you get on a roll like that, you just go with it. It was very pleasing.”
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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