Dean Smith was on a high. The Tar Heel coach, ultimately headed for the Hall of Fame, was already one of college basketball’s best. He had reached four Final Fours in his first 15 years at Chapel Hill. In the summer of 1976, he won an Olympic gold medal. The 1977 North Carolina basketball team continued the good times, giving Smith a fifth Final Four appearance. And they came oh-so-close to finally getting him his first national championship ring before falling short in the NCAA title game.
UNC was loaded throughout the starting lineup, and that started with point guard Phil Ford. The 6’2” junior knocked down 19ppg, dished our seven assists per game, and was an All-American. Ford was quarterbacking a lineup that included two All-ACC performers. Walter Davis was on the wing, and the 6’6” senior posted a per-game average of 16 points/6 rebounds/3 assists. Tom LaGarde was at center, and he finished with 15 points/7 rebounds per game.
Ford, Davis, and LaGarde would have made a pretty nice Big Three, to use a more modern basketball term. But there was more. John Kuester was Ford’s veteran running mate in the backcourt and a double-digit scorer. Freshman Mike O’Koren was inserted into the lineup and the 6’7” forward added 14 points/7 rebounds a night himself.
North Carolina was not a deep team, but the quality of this starting five, with everyone except O’Koren having played a vital role in the 1976 run to the ACC title, had the Tar Heels ranked #3 in the country in the preseason polls.
UNC, along with their neighboring ACC schools in the state of North Carolina, used to play a couple of games against each other in Greensboro that didn’t count in the conference standings. This year, they opened the season on Thanksgiving Weekend.
The season opener was on Friday against N.C. State. The Wolfpack, still just three years removed from the electric national championship run led by David Thompson in 1974, were now led by Kenny Carr. One of the best players in the conference, Carr averaged 21 points/9 rebounds per game. But the Tar Heels had too much overall talent and they won 78-66.
Wake Forest had a contending team, and in 6’6” forward Rod Griffin, they had the man who would win ACC Player of the Year honors by season’s end. Skip Brown dropped 19ppg in the backcourt. UNC and Wake played a sizzler, but the Tar Heels came out on the short end of a 97-96 loss.
North Carolina went on to win the next seven games of what was a relatively tame non-conference schedule. They went into ACC play on January 5 with a record of 8-1 and were ranked #6 in the polls.
The Tar Heels opened at home against Clemson, who was led by future NBA center Tree Rollins, and a good playmaker in Derrick Johnson. The Tigers would be in the thick of the conference race, but North Carolina pounded them, 91-63. They went on to beat Virginia, bound for a losing season, 91-67.
A big road trip was up against Wake Forest, now ranked #7 in the national polls. The two teams played another thriller, and this time UNC won it, 77-75. They came back home to beat mediocre Duke, 77-68 .
The first stumble in conference play came in Raleigh, against N.C. State. North Carolina lost 75-73. They bounced back at 13th-ranked Maryland, then an ACC team, over the weekend, winning 71-68.
North Carolina and Wake Forest were nothing if not evenly matched when they stepped on the floor. Round 3 in Chapel Hill was another one-possession affair. This one went against the Tar Heels, 67-66. Perhaps deflated, UNC went to Clemson three days later and was blown out, 93-73.
With three losses in their last four games, North Carolina was at 5-3 in ACC play. There were only seven teams in the conference, so the Tar Heels were two-thirds of the way through the league schedule as they entered a stretch of five games where four would be non-conference.
Other conference teams hadn’t played as many league games. Wake Forest set the pace at 5-1, while Clemson was 4-2. North Carolina had to get well, and hope the Demon Deacons and Tigers came back to the pack.
Georgia Tech, then a Metro Conference program, came into Chapel Hill on the first Friday night in February. UNC won 97-94. They turned around and completed the Friday-Saturday home combo by hammering lowly Furman, 88-71.
A brief return to the ACC wars was at home against Maryland, and UNC won 97-79. The Tar Heels then played a high-scoring sizzler with Tulane and won 106-94. They hit the century mark again against South Florida, delivering a 100-65 blowout.
We were moving into the latter part of February and the final three games of the conference schedule. North Carolina had gotten a little bit of help during their non-conference respite. At 6-3, they were now tied with Clemson in the league standings and were nipping at the heels of 8-2 Wake Forest.
It bears emphasis that only 32 teams made the NCAA Tournament in this era. Unlike today, none of these conference title hopefuls were assured of a spot in March Madness (which wasn’t even called March Madness back then). The remainder of the season—and certainly the conference tournament in Greensboro that would settle the automatic bid—were of enormous consequence.
North Carolina went to Virginia on Sunday afternoon and survived with a hair-raising 66-64 win. Clemson lost, so the Tar Heels had sole possession of second place. The following Tuesday, UNC got a big break—Wake Forest lost to Maryland. North Carolina took full advantage of the break the next night, when they pounded N.C. State 90-73 and moved into a tie for the league lead.
The conference finale was at Duke. The Blue Devils might have been mediocre this year, but with Jim Spanarkel and Mike Gminski having good years, the core of a team that would make a Final Four run just one year later was starting to gel. It didn’t stop UNC from going to Durham and coming home with an 84-71 win. And in the meantime, Wake lost to N.C. State. North Carolina was 1977’s outright ACC regular season champ.
After tidying up the regular season with a 96-89 home win over 10th-ranked Louisville, the Tar Heels were ready for the ACC Tournament. At #6 in the polls, they were probably in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament in either case. But again, this was a different era, and conference tourneys were nothing anyone could afford to look past.
In a seven-team bracket, North Carolina had a bye into Friday’s semifinals. They watched on Thursday as Virginia upset Wake Forest. UNC took care of their business in the semis by beating N.C. State 70-56. Virgina then delivered another blow to the bracket by knocking off Clemson. Quite improbably, the 12-16 Cavaliers were in the tournament final.
This was set up to be a cakewalk for North Carolina except for one thing—it’s the exact same scenario that happened a year earlier, when a subpar Virginia team got on a run and knocked off top-seeded UNC in the tourney final. The Cavs again gave the Tar Heels all they could handle, but this time, North Carolina closed it out. With the 75-69 win, they had the parlay of ACC regular season and tournament titles for the first time since their last Final Four year of 1972.
UNC concluded the season #5 in the final polls. There was no seeding in the NCAA Tournament prior to 1979, and the Tar Heels were positioned in the East Regional. That meant staying close to home in Raleigh for their Round of 32 game against Purdue. North Carolina trailed 44-42 at the half. On a day when most of the lineup struggled, this could have turned into a second straight early NCAA exit. But Ford stepped up with 27 points, the defense tightened, and UNC pulled out a 69-66 win.
It was on to College Park for the regionals. Digger Phelps’ Notre Dame team outshot North Carolina 67 percent to 44 percent from the floor. The Tar Heels were outrebounded 30-22. By any measure, UNC’s season should have ended here. But their defense forced turnovers. North Carolina took 70 shots from the floor compared to just 45 for Notre Dame. And the backcourt was superb. Ford dropped 29. Kuester chipped in 14 and handed out seven assists. The Tar Heels pulled out a 79-77 thriller.
Kentucky was the last hurdle in the East Regional. In a battle of programs that had already earned the title “bluebloods,” North Carolina played its best game of the tournament. They shot 60 percent from the floor. They got to the foul line, outscoring the Wildcats 33-16 from the stripe. Davis knocked down 21 points and the Tar Heels led 53-41 at the half. Kuester finished with 19 points, en route to regional MVP honors and the final was 79-72.
Atlanta’s Omni was the final step. North Carolina was slated to play the winners of the West Regional. In an occurrence that marked a new era in college basketball, the West winner was not UCLA. For the first time since 1966, a Final Four would not have the Bruins. Instead, the Tar Heels drew Jerry Tarkanian’s rising UNLV program.
The result was a sizzling thriller. Both teams shot over 50 percent. North Carolina had significant turnover problems, giving it up 27 times. Normally, that alone would have been fatal. But UNC hit the boards, to the tune of a 40-26 rebounding advantage. And they got to the free throw line—18/23 from the charity stripe compared to just 1/5 for the Runnin’ Rebels. O’Koren had a monster day, with 31 points/8 rebounds. North Carolina pulled out an 84-83 win.
Marquette was the opponent on Monday night. Al McGuire, the legendary Warrior head coach, had announced his retirement at the end of the season. North Carolina dug themselves a 39-27 hole by halftime. But Davis was playing well, scoring 20 points, and grabbing eight rebounds. O’Koren continued his strong Final Four, with a 14/11 night. UNC took over the early part of the second half and spurted to an eight-point lead.
There was no shot clock in college basketball at this time, and Smith made what proved to be a fatal decision. He decided to milk the clock. In fairness to Dean, the purpose was to force Marquette to come out of their zone. It was an outcome that McGuire feared, but now had no choice. A reasonable strategic move would backfire badly on the Tar Heels. North Carolina lost their momentum. And the guards, Ford, and Kuester, were just not having a good night. Marquette resumed control of the game and won 67-59.
It was a disappointing end to a fine season and an exciting NCAA Tournament run. Smith was now reaching that point in his career where his success started to be used against him. That is, he “couldn’t win the big one.” In 1981, North Carolina got back to the Final Four, but again came up short on Monday Night. In 1982 though, vindication finally arrived—on Smith’s seventh Final Four trip, North Carolina cut down the nets. He won one more in 1993 for good measure.