To think we are here to pray for victory is to miss the point," Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh told a group of the school's basketball players who had come to chapel last Saturday morning seeking inspiration before their game with No. 1-ranked San Francisco.
"What we pray for is to do well, to represent Notre Dame well," Hesburgh continued. "Given our tradition and our role as giant killers, if you do well I think you will win."
There it was again, even during a Mass, the "giant killers" reputation that has been Notre Dame's ever since its football team snapped Oklahoma's 47-game winning streak in 1957. Lately, the epithet has more aptly applied to the Fighting Irish basketball team, which broke Marquette's 81-game home-court winning streak in 1973, UCLA's record 88-game streak in 1974 and this season beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins' first home loss outside the Pac 8 in 115 games covering 15 years.
The prospect of another of these sporting executions lured 11,345 fans into Notre Dame's Athletic and Convocation Center to see the home team take on the mighty Dons. San Francisco has been atop the country's college basketball polls for nine weeks and was undefeated (29-0) just one week before the start of the NCAA tournament.
March 14, 1977
If the Dons longed to know what kind of reception awaited them in their first game ever against Notre Dame and their first appearance of the season on national television, they had only to ask one of their teammates, Guard Chubby Cox, a Villanova transfer, who suffered through a 115-85 thrashing at South Bend in 1974 while wearing a Wildcat uniform. Or they could have seen for themselves by sneaking into the Friday night pep rally, where Irish Coach Digger Phelps and his players made their intentions clear.
"San Francisco may be undefeated, but I don't think they have ever encountered anything like they are going to see here," said Guard Dave Kuzmicz, a local kid from South Bend who was nurtured on Notre Dame enthusiasm. Phelps was not bashful, either. "Here is the cheer for tomorrow," he bellowed, "29 and one, 29 and one. I want all of you here at 12 noon, Saturday. San Francisco will be getting dressed. Start yelling it then and they're bound to hear it." He also made some promises. "I don't care what kind of situation develops. We will pull it off with your help. It could not happen anywhere else in the country like it is set up to happen here."
Dons Coach Bob Gaillard, meanwhile, was skillfully and coolly playing it both ways. Scheduling Notre Dame this late in the season had proved to be a stroke of genius, because it provided San Francisco with a severe test after it had clinched the West Coast Athletic Conference title and a bid to the NCAA tournament. If the Dons were able to pull off what amounted to an upset—despite its 29 victories, USF was a 6½-point underdog by game time—it would add credibility to the team's No. 1 ranking and at least in part muffle the criticism that they had played a soft schedule. If San Francisco lost, no real harm would be done, except, as Gaillard would say afterward, "A nice No. 30 won't be going up on the board."
Notre Dame, too, was already a cinch to make the tournament with its 19-6 record, so nothing much was really at stake, save the Irish's streak of streak-breaking. Outwardly unconcerned, therefore, Phelps and Gaillard ran around together for two days, trading one-liners, comparing wardrobes and seeing who could propose more toasts. San Francisco practiced until 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, and one of the Dons bent the rim of a basket. Phelps said he didn't care about the damage or the late hour, he was taking Gaillard out on the town. Gaillard got in about 3 a.m., but was able to rise in time to pick up some souvenirs—a Notre Dame T shirt and a golf hat with a big blue "N.D."
"Digger has missed curfew two nights in a row now," said Gaillard while checking out the crowd during pregame warmups. "He waited until he saw himself on all four channels before he kicked me out of his place last night. I don't think he should be allowed to coach the first half." In the home locker room Phelps had finished an A-1 psych job on his players by telling them, "Meeting San Francisco under these circumstances is like going for the national championship in your own backyard."
The first half was played so attractively and instinctively by both teams that neither coach had much to do. Despite the notion that the Dons would be ready to head for home as soon as they heard the explosions of cheers in the Athletic and Convocation Center, they quickly proved they had left neither their hearts nor their nerve in San Francisco. Trailing 21-20, the Dons pulled off a five-point sequence started by seven-foot Center Bill Cartwright, who hit a jumper from the baseline while being fouled. Cartwright missed the free throw, but high-flying Guard Winford Boynes put in the rebound, was fouled himself and made the free throw. These are the things the Dons are capable of when they are running the show, as they seemed to be a moment later when Forward Marlon Redmond made a steal and a layup for a 27-21 San Francisco lead.
The Dons were for real, but the Irish weren't all that impressed. They rallied behind Forward Dave Batton and sixth man Billy Paterno. The pair scored 17 of Notre Dame's last 23 points in the period, including a rebound basket by Bat-ton at the buzzer that gave N.D. a 44-42 halftime lead and set the arena rocking.
But no one thought for a minute that the Dons were through. If they were bothered by the decibel count, they would have cracked by now. On the contrary, the Dons seemed more inspired than intimidated by the din and the hoopla. Whenever the clamor from the stands seemed particularly unnerving, Boynes would make a successful drive down the lane, or Redmond would launch one from long range. Well into the second half, through 17 lead changes and 28 minutes of spectacular basketball, San Francisco looked like a No. 1 team should look, talented and unflappable.
In the end, the difference between the two teams seemed to turn more on experience than pressure. The Dons had beaten tough opponents like Tennessee, Utah and St. John's during the season. But it is important to note that San Francisco had played only a handful of games on the floor of a team with a winning record. And four of those five games were against teams from the WCAC, a league in which nobody came within five games of USF this year. In the later stages of the game, San Francisco seemed more perturbed by Notre Dame's staying power than by its home-court advantage.
The noise level did have an effect on the Irish players. Forward Toby Knight, a 6'9" bean pole who out-rebounded Cartwright 14-2, had the hot hand in the early moments of the second half. Knight scored five baskets in less than five minutes, including a stirring slam-dunk of a rebound. When Notre Dame's nettlesome freshman Guard Rich Branning, himself a Californian, made a basket with 12:18 remaining to put the Irish ahead 61-58, Gaillard called time out. He had been so pleased with events thus far that it was only his second time-out of the game, but now the first signs of disorder were beginning to show. The crowd, sensing the kill, roared with delight.
Gaillard sent his team back out in a man-to-man defense he hoped would create turnovers. Instead, Duck Williams, a 6'3" junior guard, who was to score a game-high 25 points, began running wild in a version of the four-corners alignment that North Carolina would never recognize. He drove the lane and scored, making the score 63-58, then took a pass from Branning on a fast break to put the Irish ahead by seven. Bedlam. Boynes scored for San Francisco to reduce the margin to five, but Williams drove for another basket, was fouled and made the three-point play. A Cartwright basket made it 68-62, but when Bruce Flowers tipped one in and Williams put in another soft-touch layup, Notre Dame led by 10. Gaillard called another time-out, but in the 3:44 between the two, the Irish had put the game away. The final eight minutes were played to a standing ovation, Notre Dame winning 93-82.
At the buzzer, Dons Forward James Hardy made a mean-eyed block of Notre Dame's last shot, angrily shoved freshman Bill Hanzlik aside and then was fortunate to weave his way safely to the losers' locker room amid the throngs of Notre Dame fans who poured onto the court at the buzzer. Many of the Irish diehards were still milling around an hour later, savoring the victory and the end of yet another streak. And why not? In an unprecedented move, NBC had given its Player of the Game award to the Notre Dame crowd.