The Big East owned the 1985 Final Four. They took three of the spots, the only time that’s happened in NCAA Tournament history. It included the two teams that had been the best of the country all season long, Georgetown and St. John’s. And neither of those were the one that ultimately won a stunning national title. That would be Villanova. Here’s a look back on the road that these three, along with interloper Memphis, took to the 1985 Final Four in Lexington.
Georgetown’s All-American center Patrick Ewing was in his senior year and had led the Hoyas to the NCAA title in 1984, and the final game in 1982. Poised to become the #1 overall pick in the coming NBA draft, Ewing averaged 15 points/10 rebounds per game, was a feared shotblocker and anchored a team that opened the season that could be a success only way—with a repeat national title.
Ewing had solid help around him, with power forward Bill Martin averaging 13/6, while David Wingate and Reggie Williams knocked down 12 a game from the wings. Michael Jackson was a smooth point guard that oversaw it all.
St. John’s head coach Lou Carnesecca had his best team since his arrival in Queens in 1974 and was looking to get to his first Final Four. Chris Mullin was a lights-out two-guard, averaging 20ppg in the era before the three-point shot, when he routinely scored from that distance. Mullin was National Player of the Year. At the forward spot was Walter Berry, who averaged 17ppg and would ultimately be National Player of the Year in 1986.
The Redmen center Bill Wennington kicked in 12 a night and had an NBA future ahead of him as the center on the first Michael Jordan run of championship teams in Chicago (1991-93). Mike Moses ran the show, and even the backup point guard had a good NBA career ahead of him—Mark Jackson went on to thrive as a player, head coach and TV analyst at the next level.
It was these two teams that were on a collision course all year and their meetings had an electricity rarely seen for any regular college basketball games today. St. John’s got the first one, a 66-65 nailbiter in Landover. Georgetown went up to Madison Square Garden for the second meeting and won more comfortably.
The difference in the conference race was that Georgetown also lost by a bucket to Syracuse, while St. John’s won out. The Redmen won the regular season title.
Villanova finished tied for third with Syracuse, although that was still five games behind Georgetown for second. Wildcat head coach Rollie Massimino had also been on the job since 1974 and in three previous years he had reached a regional final, but was still seeking his first Final Four.
Ed Pinckney and Harold Pressley were a good interior tandem for Villanova, combining to average 28 points/17 rebounds a night. Dwayne McClain was a quality scorer at the small forward position, giving 14 a night and Gary McClain (no relation) was the point guard.
At the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden, St. John’s beat Villanova in the semis, while Georgetown held serve and ousted Syracuse, setting up a third Hoyas-Redmen battle. Georgetown won this one and was rewarded with the #1 seed in the East Regional. St. John’s got the #1 seed in the West. Villanova was an afterthought, seeded #8 in the Southeast Regional.
Memphis had reached the Sweet 16 each of the previous three years before losing, each of the last two times to Houston and the great Hakeem Olajuwon. The Tigers had two good big men of their own. Keith Lee was good for a 20/9 nightly average. William Bedford posted a 12/8 and would have an excellent NBA career if not for a drug problem. Andre Turner, the little point guard, made Memphis a complete team, with his 11 points/7 assists a night.
The Tigers easily outpaced traditional Metro Conference power Louisville, who had a down year and missed the NCAA Tournament. Memphis went 27-3 and got the #2 seed in the Midwest Regional.
That’s how the four teams got to March. Now let’s follow each of them through the Madness itself.
This was the first year of the 64-team field and therefore the first time that high seeds—the 1 thru 4 lines—had to play two games rather than one.
It didn’t matter to Georgetown, who made quick work of Lehigh and Temple. It was tougher for St. John’s, who got a tough fight from Arkansas in the second round. The Razorbacks had Joe Kleine at center, who had played on the Olympic team a year earlier, along with a future NBA first-rounder in Byron Irving. But the Redmen survived, 68-65.
Memphis got an even bigger scare. After beating Penn to open the tournament, they trailed UAB by one point in the closing seconds. Turner stepped up and hit a jumper to win the game and keep the season alive.
Villanova got hit with a lousy draw—they had to play 9-seed Dayton on the Flyers’ home floor. The Wildcats overcame it with a narrow 59-55 win. Then they knocked off top-seeded Michigan and were headed to the regionals again.
GEORGETOWN: The chalk held for the East Regional in Providence, with Georgetown joined by the 2-3-4 seeds in Georgia Tech, Illinois and Loyola-Chicago. The Hoyas played Loyola in the Sweet 16, where the talk was abuzz about Loyola’s great scorer, Alfredrick Hughes, going against the famed Georgetown defense.
Defense won the day. Hughes was held to 4-of-13 shooting and even though Loyola made this one plenty interesting, leading 28-26 at the half, the Hoyas gradually took over the second half and won 65-53.
Georgia Tech was a good opponent, with future NBA stalwarts Mark Price and John Salley, in the backcourt and up front respectively. Price was a brilliant shooter, along the lines of Mullin and for the second straight game, defense delivered Georgetown on the second half.
The game was tied at the half. I was a freshman in high school at the time and had stepped out on a limb to pick Georgia Tech to win the national title, when the national consensus was Georgetown. To say I badly wanted this game was an understatement. It looked like the Yellow Jackets might do it, but the Hoya defense forced Price into 3-for-16 shooting and they survived, 60-54. To this day, I feel a little sick about the upset pick that got away.
Ewing was the region’s Outstanding Player. He had 21 points/14 rebounds against Loyola, added 14 points against Georgia Tech and his shotblocking ability freed the Hoya defense to attack freely on the perimeter.
ST. JOHN’S: The Redmen got what the numbers said was a bracket break—getting to play the 12-seed in the Sweet 16 in Denver. But not when the 12-seed is Kentucky, playing for outgoing coach Joe B. Hall, having a great player in Kenny Walker and the core of a team that would be a 1-seed in 1986.
St. John’s couldn’t stop Walker, who went for 23 points/8 rebounds, but Mullin more than answered with 30, while Berry came up with 22/12. It was the Redmen’s best game of the tournament and they pulled away in the second half to an 86-70.
The opponent in the regional final was N.C. State, two years removed from their miracle national title and on a nice little run here as the 3-seed. In this case though, the seed is again probably misleading. N.C. State had survived 7-seed Alabama 61-55 in the Sweet 16. The Tide had a quality front line with Bobby Lee Hurt, Derrick McKey and Buck Johnson and probably would have made a tougher opponent for St. John’s.
Mullin put on another exquisite display, this time going for 25 points and he played all forty minutes in both games at Denver. Berry scored 19 against N.C. State, while Wennington posted a 14/10 line. St. John’s again took control in the second half and won this one 63-57. Mullin was the Most Outstanding Player and Carnesecca was making his one and only Final Four trip.
VILLANOVA: Birmingham was the site of the Southeast Regional (the bracket that’s since evolved into the South) and Villanova met up with Maryland in the Round of 16. The Terps had plenty of talent, starting with junior forward Len Bias, who would become the second overall pick in the NBA draft one year later and then tragically die of a cocaine overdose.
The Wildcats-Terps battle was ugly, but Villanova forced Bias into a 4-for-13 shooting night, and they controlled the boards. Pinckney delivered a 16/10 game, while Pressley added ten rebounds of his own. It was enough to pull out a 46-43 edge.
Massimino’s fourth shot at the Final Four would come against Dean Smith and North Carolina. The Tar Heels were the 2-seed and had beaten Auburn 62-56, a team with future NBA forward Chuck Person. UNC’s frontline was led by center Brad Daugherty, who would be the first pick in the NBA draft in 1986. The point guard was Kenny Smith, a future two-time NBA champion with the Houston Rockets and current TNT analyst.
The Villanova defense again delivered. Smith, who had lit up Auburn for 22 points, was held to four. While Daugherty was good for 17/12, the Wildcats used a balanced lineup, with four starters in double figures, combined with smothering defense. They turned a 10-point halftime deficit into a 56-44 win.
Pinckney was named Outstanding Player on the strength of his game against Maryland the fact no one else had two stellar games. But it should be noted he was the only Wildcat starter not to get double figures against North Carolina.
MEMPHIS: This regional at Dallas is one of those hidden treasures in NCAA Tournament history. All three games were brilliant, and the quality of the big men on display was something to behold. We’ve already mentioned Lee and Bedford. They were joined by Wayman Tisdale, a former Olympian that led #1-seed Oklahoma. And Louisiana Tech, the 4-seed, had a guy by the name of Karl Malone whose NBA career turned out pretty good.
But the first game Memphis had was against the fourth Big East team that was looking to crash the party. Boston College didn’t have the same talent level as Villanova, much less Georgetown and St. John’s. But the Eagles were feisty, with Gary Williams as their head coach. The game went down to the wire and only Bedford’s 23/8 night saved Memphis in a 59-57 win.
It set up a battle with Oklahoma. The Sooners had gone to overtime with Louisiana Tech, with both Tisdale and Malone putting on a show. Malone went for 20/16, while Tisdale had 23/11. With the score tied 84-84, Tisdale took a turnaround jumper in the low post. The ball hit the rim five different times before falling in at the buzzer.
Memphis-Oklahoma was as good as the regional semis had been. Lee came up big in this one, with 23/11, while Turner scored 12 points and dished 12 assists. Tisdale shot well and grabbed eleven rebounds, but the difference was the Tiger defense succeeded in limiting his shots. Tisdale could only get 11 points. Memphis won 63-61 and Turner was named Outstanding Player.
THE 1985 FINAL FOUR
Under today’s NCAA Tournament format, where the 1-seeds themselves are also seeded, Georgetown and St. John’s would surely have gone to opposite sides of the bracket. But prior to 2003 it was done on a regional rotation system, so the Hoyas and Redmen would meet on Saturday. Of course they were the marquee game, then set for late afternoon, while Villanova-Memphis was the early tip.
The game wasn’t pretty. Villanova was outrebounded 33-26 only shot 42 percent. But their defense was even better—Lee was held to 10 points and Bedford to 8, as Memphis shot 38 percent. And the Wildcats got the big individual performance that stands out in a defense-oriented game. Dwayne McClain knocked down 19 points. The 52-45 win completed the Big East’s dominance, as they had the only three teams left.
It was time for Round Four of Georgetown and St. John’s, and it was close for a half, the Hoyas leading 32-28 at the half. It was time for Georgetown’s defense to finish off its Trifecta—they had contained Hughes, contained Price and now Mullin was the big prize. They couldn’t force the St. John’s star into poor shooting, so Georgetown had to stop Mullin one level sooner—prevent him from ever getting a shot off.
The Hoyas held Mullin to eight shot attempts. He made four, but that was it and he never got to the free throw line. Ewing neutralized the interior, preventing Berry or Wennington from easing the pressure. Ewing also scored 16 points, while Reggie Williams popped in 20 to lead what turned into a 77-59 rout.
What happened on Monday Night is now one of the most famous parts of NCAA Tournament lore. It was supposed to be a coronation for Georgetown and ended up turning Massimino into a legend. After all the great defensive performances of the Hoyas no one saw the Wildcats shooting a stunning 79 percent from the floor. Dwayne McClain scored 17, while Pinckney had 16.
It deserves to be pointed out that Georgetown played pretty well themselves, shooting 54 percent. Wingate scored 16 points. Ewing added 14, and though he didn’t get his usual rebounding numbers it’s because there just weren’t that many missed shots to go get.
Harold Jensen was the X-factor for Villanova, the reserve guard who came off the bench to hit all five shots from the field. Villanova pulled the stunning 66-64 upset.
There is one piece of this legacy that I’d like to re-opened. Pinckney was named MOP of the Final Four, and he does deserve credit for his battling with Ewing, Lee and Bedford. But Dwayne McClain, with his great performances both Saturday and Monday was the most valuable player in this Final Four.
Perhaps someday another conference will put three teams in the Final Four. In fact, as leagues expand to become far-flung conglomerates rather than simple conferences, it’s more than probable. But it will never have the same feel as the 1985 Final Four, when three true blood rivals, with all the contempt that familiarity brings, came together at the Battle of Lexington. And that the most unlikely of the trio was the one who walked off with the ring.