The first rule of any 16-team tournament is that you must begin with 16 teams. And so, early in their selections, the NIT people posted invitations to Notre Dame and to Virginia Tech, and then they got serious. For sure, there were other soft touches. With the NCAA sweeping up conference champions plus the best of the independents, not too much remained. But this year the NIT emerged with some legitimate muscle in Minnesota and Alabama and North Carolina, and there were those who wept for the Irish and the, ah, Gobblers. For goodness sakes, the Gobblers?
The experts sourly scanned Notre Dame's record (15-11), its starting lineup (four sophomores, one junior) and its bench (a split end), and decided the Irish would be a 2-to-1 underdog against a forfeit. As one wit said, "The Notre Dames draw a bye and lose by five." None of the levity was lost on Digger Phelps, the effervescent 31-year-old who still finds it hard to believe that he is really coaching at Notre Dame.
"We played the toughest schedule in the country," said Phelps, who didn't care for the suggestion that Notre Dame was in only as a temporary hype to the gate at Madison Square Garden. NIT officials were equally offended, adding that it was only by mere chance that the Irish would play their first game on St. Patrick's Day. But Phelps' argument was sound. Notre Dame played a schedule that looked as though it might have been drawn up by Ian Paisley. In their first seven games the Irish lost to Michigan, Ohio State, St. Louis, Indiana, UCLA and Kentucky. After that, a guillotine would have looked like a breather. But by now Phelps had settled on his ironman offense, and the inexhaustible youngsters chewed up 14 opponents, including Marquette, St. John's and South Carolina, which did not exactly make them look like a pickup team from the South Bend YMCA.
The selection of Virginia Tech mystified even Virginia Tech, which had blown a possible NCAA at-large bid by losing to a couple of powerhouses named Richmond and Toledo. Still, the Gobblers had beaten Ohio State, South Carolina and Florida State while winning 18 of 23 and confounding the critics in the state who had said, "The Gobblers are too small, too white and too Virginian." Tech did have great cheerleaders, it was duly noted, all of them bearing some resemblance to Raquel Welch. Well, that wouldn't hurt the gate any, either. "I don't think we'll win a game," said Allan Bristow, the 6'7" center who had just two scholarship offers while in high school, both for swimming. (He says Virginia Tech finally took him as a basketball player because a scout liked the way he dribbled.) "If we win one game," said Craig Lieder, a junior forward, "we can stay in New York a week."
On that note, the tournament began. "Can you imagine?" said Bob Boyd, the USC coach, "the Pac-8 finally gets a team in the NIT and we draw Notre Dame on St. Patrick's Day. Maybe we shouldn't show up." Later, Boyd wished he hadn't. The Trojans had 28 fouls called against them, Notre Dame but 10. USC made 32 field goals but just one free throw. Notre Dame made 23 field goals, 23 free throws—and won 69-65. Boyd set an NIT chair-drop-kicked-into-stands record of one.
The next day the Virginia Tech cheerleaders showed up in orange knee-length high-heel boots, supertight body shirts and white hot pants.
"I've just become a Gobbler fan," said 3,462 non-Virginia spectators.
By the time the team took the floor, the Garden crowd was almost all pro-Gobbler. Perhaps inspired by the unexpected support, underdog Virginia Tech responded with a 65-63 upset of New Mexico, the clincher coming on a basket by Charlie Thomas with 33 seconds to play. "It's a good team," said Tech Coach Don DeVoe, "even though none of our players were All-Americas in high school."
In the quarterfinals Notre Dame played favored Louisville even for a half, then dropped into a man-to-man defense and ran off with a 79-71 victory. With one second to play, Gary Brokaw fouled out and was replaced by Don Silinski. That was the Irish's only substitution.
"Going a full game was hard for me at first," said Brokaw, a 6'3" sophomore guard. "The secret is pacing yourself. That's a lot more important part of the game than people think. There was a point in December when I'd get so I could hardly move around in a game. But it doesn't bother me now. It's harder to keep your momentum when you keep changing lineups."
Whatever momentum Virginia Tech had from its opening victory it almost lost against little Fairfield, a surprise 80-76 victor over Marshall in its first game. "Fairfield's like us," said Lieder. "We're nobody and they're nobody, and that makes it a hard game for us. We lose mostly to cruddy teams."
And for a half that's just the way Virginia Tech played, as though it were going to lose to another nobody. "We gave up more easy points in the first 20 minutes than we gave up all year," said DeVoe. Down by nine at intermission, the Gobblers finally put enough of their game together to edge the gritty little Connecticut school 77-76. "We just don't play well against a team like that," said DeVoe. "We don't look good until we play somebody like an Alabama."
Enter Alabama, the new Southeastern Conference power that had shocked 10th-ranked Minnesota 69-65 with a second-half run of 16 straight points in the quarterfinals. "Virginia Tech? I don't know too much about them," said Leon Douglas, Alabama's 6'10" freshman center. "I watched part of their game with Fairfield but I kept falling asleep."
No one slept through the last 3:05 of the Gobblers' 74-73 upset of Alabama. Trailing by five at that point, Tech got two quick scores from Thomas, its defensive genius. One point down, and the Gobblers' cheerleaders were doing their version of the turkey trot. It would be hard to fault Alabama's Ray Odums for fouling under the circumstances. But he did, giving the ball to Tech, which gave it to Ed Frazier, who hit a jumper from the key. Then Bobby Stevens made a pair of free throws, and Virginia Tech led 74-71 with 14 seconds to play. Alabama cut that margin to one on an Odums jump shot. And there, with five seconds to play, Virginia Tech almost blew it to a somebody.
The, Gobblers had to bring the ball into play from under their basket. The ball came in but no one was there, and it went bouncing down the court. In pursuit went Lieder, who is known as Lead-foot. "To start the clock I had to touch it before it went out of bounds," he said. "I never ran so fast in my life." He caught up with the ball just as he was falling out of bounds in the far corner, and the clock ticked. The game ended before Alabama could bring the ball far enough upcourt to get off a shot.
"Us, Virginia Tech in the NIT final?" said Bristow. "I don't believe it."
"We had to win it," said Lieder. "The consolation game is at 11 a.m. and nobody wanted to get up that early."
For its semifinal Notre Dame caught North Carolina, the victor over Oral Roberts and Massachusetts, and so deep in talent that its coach, Dean Smith, orders in substitutes in waves. Against Massachusetts, for instance, Smith juggled his lineup 31 times, which can be confusing. To everyone. Against Massachusetts, Smith tried to substitute George Karl for George Karl.
For the first 20 minutes North Carolina hurled fresh body after fresh body at the Irish, and all this won the Tar Heels a nine-point lead with 2:33 to play. But Notre Dame's Pete Crotty picked up his third foul and Phelps replaced him with Willie Townsend, a split end for the football team. He contributed a basket to seven straight Irish points that cut the margin to 43-41 at the half.
Then Dwight Clay, a 5'11" sophomore guard who had only one field goal in the first half, decided he had better do something. "I knew I had to open things up," he said. "Coach looks to me to get movement in the game." He started with two quick jumpers, fed a pass to Townsend who scored, and then hit a long jumper. Notre Dame led by six and the freshness oozed from North Carolina. "I figured they were getting a little winded," said Clay. From there until the 78-71 end, the big excitement was when Notre Dame's John Shumate finally missed a shot. The 6'9" sophomore went 9 for 9 against Louisville, and hit on his first 11 against North Carolina. Going into Sunday's final, he was 28 for 32 from the floor in three games.
"We have to do something to neutralize Shumate," said DeVoe. "If we can, we can stay within reach." North Carolina's Smith suggested the law of averages. "It's not humanly possible to keep shooting like that," he said. Perhaps not, but to make certain, DeVoe ordered his troops to collapse on Shumate whenever he moved inside. When Tech built 10-point leads three times in the first half, the plan appeared sound. But then the Irish went into a full-court press, the Gobblers went into a panic and by halftime Notre Dame's deficit was four.
The intermission did nothing for the Virginians' nerves. The Gobblers began turning over the ball almost faster than Notre Dame could pick it up and score, and with less than eight minutes to play the Irish had streaked to a 10-point lead.
DeVoe called his charges in for a council. Do to them what they are doing to you, he told them. Pressure them. As the Irish suddenly developed stone fingers, Tech sliced the lead. It was two points with five seconds to play. "I had never really given up," said Lieder. "I just figured we were doomed." Then at the buzzer, Lieder hit a 15-foot jumper to send the game into overtime. "I don't believe it," he said.
A few minutes later he felt doomed again after Notre Dame had taken a four-point lead with 55 seconds to play. That's when Bobby Stevens, a 5'10" guard, took command. In three previous tournaments, twice in high school and once in junior college, Stevens' teams had reached the final only to lose. He decided that four times would be too many.
With 43 seconds to play, Stevens hit with a short jumper, was fouled while shooting and made the free throw to cut Notre Dame's lead to one. When the Irish brought the ball into play, the Gobblers' Thomas took a deep breath and fouled Brokaw, who already had scored 23 points. Brokaw went to the line for the one-and-one, missed and Virginia Tech came down with the ball. With 12 seconds to play, Stevens called for a time-out.
And there it was. Sixteen teams, 15 games and it all came down to just one shot. Or, as it turned out, two. Ed Frazier passed in to Stevens, who saw everybody else was covered and decided to throw the ball up. It hit the rim and came down into a crowd. Someone batted it in the air, Stevens ran over and grabbed it and turned loose his second chance just as the buzzer went off. Swish! For a second, none of the Gobblers believed it went in and that they were the 1973 NIT champions. Neither could Shumate, who scored 28 points and was voted the tournament's most valuable player.
"And now we can go home," said Lieder. "New York is a great place but it is awfully expensive. And we're just poor country boys."