The 1977 Final Four was the year Al McGuire rode into retirement in a blaze of glory with the Marquette Warriors. It was also a year when Jerry Tarkanian made his first appearance on college basketball’s big stage, when Cornbread Maxwell led upstart UNC-Charlotte and when Dean Smith’s North Carolina team might have won it all if not for an untimely injury. Here’s a look back on the road all four teams took to Atlanta.
Marquette finished 20-7, which was a high number of losses for an NCAA tournament team in the days when the bracket was only 32 deep. In fact, no team had ever won a national championship with so many defeats and a conventional reading of history says that MU’s bid was in danger right up to the very end.
It should be noted that Marquette did finish 7th in the AP’s final poll of the regular season, so that might be overstated (the NCAA Tournament was not seeded until 1979 so we don’t know what the committee thought). But certainly no one was thinking this would be the team that would do what a better Warriors’ squad couldn’t three years earlier or in 1976, and that’s get Al to the top of the heap.
Butch Lee was Marquette’s top player, scoring 20 ppg and he was a good passer. Bo Ellis kicked in 16 points/8 rebounds a game, and Jerome Whitehead’s 11/8 further strengthened the interior. Point guard Jimmy Boylan ran the show. The Warriors beat Cincinnati 66-51 in their first round game, turning around a three-point halftime deficit behind 17 points from Ellis.
It was on to Oklahoma City and the Midwest Regionals, where #16 Kansas State, champions of the Big Eight (now the Big 12) awaited. Marquette was outrebounded, but Lee took the game into his own hands. He went 12-for-23 from the floor, taking nine more shots than anyone else in the lineup and finished with 26. Marquette survived 67-66.
Wake Forest beat Southern Illinois 86-81 in the other Sweet 16 game. The Demon Deacons were ranked ninth, but being outrebounded in victory themselves, they perhaps weren’t in the best position to exploit a Marquette weakness. Wake led by four at the half in the regional final, but Marquette took over.
Ellis, Lee and Bernard Toone all led the way, combining for 57 points and MU won 82-68. Lee took him Outstanding Player honors and McGuire was going back to the Final Four for the second time in his career.
The Tar Heels won the ACC title, edging Wake and Clemson in the regular season and then capturing the conference tournament, behind point guard Phil Ford. The All-American averaged 19 ppg and was an extraordinary playmaker. Walter Davis was an outstanding talent on the wing, averaging 15 ppg and being effective both distributing and rebounding. Mike O’Koren and Tommy LaGarde both chipped in further scoring and controlled the paint.
North Carolina finished the regular season ranked #5 and went to the East Regional, where they were on a collision course with third-ranked Kentucky. The Tar Heels got a tough fight from Big Ten runner-up Purdue in the first round.
The Boilermakers had a freshman center in Joe Barry Carroll would lead them to a Final Four of their own by his senior year, along future NBA guard Jerry Sichting, who was in the regular rotation for the 1986 Boston Celtics, one of the great champions of all time. But Ford drilled 27 points and UNC won 69-66.
North Carolina went to College Park, home of the then-conference rival Maryland Terrapins for the East Regionals. UNC played a terrific Sweet 16 game against Notre Dame, and Ford was again electric. He scored 29 points and with the game tied 77-77, knocked down the free throws that won it. Meanwhile, Kentucky pounded VMI 93-78, with star Jack Givens and unheralded Truman Claytor shooting the lights out, combining for 55 points.
Both the Tar Heels and Wildcats came out blazing in the first half, and North Carolina led 53-41 by halftime (so much for the notion you need a lower shot clock to increase scoring–you just need teams that know how to execute an offense).
North Carolina took a big blow though, when Ford hit the deck and hyperextended his shooting elbow. The Tar Heels still survived this game, winning 79-72 thanks to some amazing free throw shooting. They went 33-for-36 from the line. John Kuester went 13-for-14, scoring 19 points and turning into Outstanding Player honors, probably making him the only player in history to win such an award simply for shooting free throws.
The Heels were on their way to Atlanta, but Ford’s health was the question mark looming over them and the entire college basketball world.
Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, would one day become a solid NBA player for the Boston Celtics, playing a key role in two championship teams and winning MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals. He made his first big national splash in 1977, averaging 22 points/12 rebounds and leading Charlotte to a 25-2 record.
The 49ers were coached by Lee Rose, who would later coach the 1980 Purdue team with Joe Barry Carroll that made the Final Four. Rose had another 20-ppg scorer in Lew Mass, and the team went to the Mideast Regional unheralded and not ranked among the nation’s best 16 teams.
Charlotte got a relatively easy first-round game with Central Michigan, another fruit of the bracket being unseeded, and the 49ers were nearly upset. The game went to overtime, but Maxwell’s 32/18 line was too much for CMU in a 91-86 win. It was on to Lexington for the regionals, where they would play sixth-ranked Syracuse and top-ranked Michigan also loomed. No one was planning on seeing Charlotte in Atlanta.
A young Jim Boeheim was coaching Syracuse and he was surprisingly blitzed by the 49ers, who rolled to an 81-59 win, making 21 free throws while the Orange got only three points from the line.
The other Sweet 16 game was the one that provided the thrills. Michigan got all it could handle from in-state rival Detroit, hungry to make a name for itself with a feisty young coach named Dick Vitale. The Wolverines survived 86-81 thanks to an amazing 26-rebound performance from Phil Hubbard.
Michigan was the solid favorite in the regional final. In addition to Hubbard, a second-team All-American, they had a quality inside player in John Robinson. And neither was even the best player–Ricky Green was a first-team All-American and this group had reached the national championship game one year earlier.
Charlotte’s defense forced Green into 4-for-13 shooting and with Cornbread in the paint, Hubbard and Robinson couldn’t muscle their way around quite so easily. Maxwell had a 25/13 game, while Hubbard/Robinson combined for just 25/11. The 49ers led 40-27 at the half and pulled the 75-68 upset.
Vitale, in his later books, would modestly take credit for the result, insisting that Michigan was drained from its Sweet 16 battle with his Detroit team. That may be so, but it’s still Cornbread Maxwell who got Outstanding Player of the Mideast Regional.
This was the second year since the retirement of John Wooden at UCLA, and Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels were the rising power in the West. UNLV had missed a chance to go head-to-head with UCLA in 1976 when the Rebs lost an overtime Sweet 16 game to Arizona. Tark’s team came back strong in ’77 and went 25-2.
UNLV ran the floor aggressively, with 22-ppg scorer Eddie Owens leading a lineup that had six double-figure scorers. The lineup included Reggie Theus, who would one day be a good NBA scoring guard with the Chicago Bulls. Robert Smith was the floor leader, Glen Godrezick handled the low post and Sam Smith added to the scoring effort.
The NCAA Tournament bracket did the fourth-ranked Rebels no favors, matching them up with #8 San Francisco in the first round. The Dons, the alma mater of Bill Russell, had another great center in Bill Cartwright. They went 29-1 and Bob Gailland got national Coach of the Year. If Tarkanian, who loathed the NCAA, felt like they were out to get him, he had just cause.
UNLV answered the bell though with a 121-95 win. Theus led all scorers on either team with 27, while Owens had 22. The Reb defense limited Cartwright’s shot attempts and they advanced to Provo for the West Regionals.
Utah, ranked #14, was waiting in the Sweet 16 and 21 points from Smith led the way in an 88-83 win. Another possible meeting with UCLA in a regional final got derailed when the Bruins were stunned by Idaho State 76-75. UCLA’s Marques Johnson was the national Player of the Year and they had future pros in David Greenwood and Kiki Vandeweghe in the rotation. But a kid from Idaho State named Steve Hawes trumped them all, with 27 points/12 rebounds. Basketball fans would again miss a UCLA-UNLV battle.
UNLV was able to control Hawes the same way they controlled Cartwright–by limiting his shot attempts. Hawes shot 70 percent from the floor, but only had ten shots. UNLV did trail 52-51 at the half, but took over after intermission. Owens finished with 24 points. Combined with his 16 from the Utah game, it was enough for Outstanding Player honors and UNLV’s 107-90 win sent them on to Tark’s first Final Four.
THE 1977 FINAL FOUR
Semi-Final Saturday would be a great day for college basketball fans. It started with Marquette-UNC-Charlotte. Maxwell had a solid game, a 17/12 line, but Whitehead was the star inside player of this game. The MU big man finished with 21/16 and then made the game’s biggest play–he caught a length-of-the-floor pass and laid it in at the buzzer for a 51-49 win.
Ford played in the North Carolina-UNLV game, but his shooting was obviously affected by the injury, going just 4-for-10. O’Koren stepped up with 31 points. North Carolina was sloppy in the first half, but only down six at the break. The Heels eventually won 84-83, with Kuester’s free throw shooting again putting the game away down the stretch.
On Monday Night, McGuire roared up to the old Atlanta Omni in a motorcycle for his last game on the sidelines and his players were ready to send him out a winner. Ford, in spite of constant treatment for his elbow, couldn’t get his shooting touch back and went 4-for-10. At the risk of being a killjoy on the McGuire story, it’s hard to imagine North Carolina not winning the national championship with a healthy Ford.
But injuries are a part of the game and a part of it being “your year” is when those injuries work in your favor. 1977 was McGuire’s year. Whitehead again controlled the glass on Monday Night, with 11 rebounds. Lee scored 19 and won Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Marquette’s 67-59 win and the sight of McGuire, ever the tough guy, crying on the sidelines as the clock ticked down, remain one of the endearing images of college basketball history.